How Processed Foods Affect Your Kid's Mood

By Nicole Avena, Ph.D.

Processed foods are those that undergo multiple stages of manufacturing before being put on the shelf to consume. Usually, processed foods are cheap and last a long time, which can make them seem like an easy choice for a child who enjoys few foods. But, processed foods can have some major implications on the brain. Sugar, salt, and fat usually make up most highly processed foods making them “addictive” or hard to put down even if your stomach says it’s full. Giving these foods to children at a young age can alter their gut microbiome and keep them “addicted” to these foods for life.  

(1) They affect a child’s brain and body in similar ways drugs can addicts, making them a predictor of mood and energy. High sugar foods spike blood sugar levels at a quick rate, and result in a sharp drop in blood sugar when the body is done processing. This process can negatively impact mood and cause mood swings.  

(2) When blood sugar is raised at a rapid rate, children experience a “sugar high” or a short burst of what seems to be endless amounts of energy. This usually coincides with a happy feeling. Sugar triggers receptors in the brain and releases dopamine and serotonin, making children feel pleasure and happiness.  

(3) And you guessed it- as soon as that sugar wears off in an hour or two, blood sugar plumets and the body becomes desperate to feel that feeling of happiness again. This roller coaster of moods also takes a toll on the gut. Beneficial bacteria don’t like too much sugar in the diet and can get overcrowded by bad bacteria who eat the sugar, further effecting mental health.  

(4) Tips to battle back against processed foods include providing your child with plenty of whole grains to counter blood sugar spikes, including prebiotic foods and prebiotic supplements, and offering fatty fish at least twice a week.  

Whole grains work to counter the roller coaster of blood sugars children can experience out of our control during the day. Sending your child to school not knowing what they’re being fed every day can be difficult to control, but when they are home and being provided meals, you can make sure they will not affect their mood. Whole grains including brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat or sprouted grain breads, and oats can make great snacks and meals for your child.  

Another tip is to include omega 3 fatty acids that are found in fatty fish has been shown to improve inflammation throughout the body and therefore boost mood. Inflammation throughout the body has been associated with poor mental health. Although fish may not be your child’s favorite meal, offering this on their plate 2 times a week and modeling you eating the fish can spark interest in the healthy choice. Fatty fish options include salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herring.  

Finally, start your child on a daily prebiotic regimen. Prebiotics can replenish good bacteria growth in the gut and support digestion, mood, and overall wellbeing. Some foods that contain prebiotics include yogurt, kombucha, kefir, and fermented foods like sauerkraut. You can also opt to give your child a prebiotic supplement daily, to ensure they are getting the proper number of bacteria every day to prevent poor moods! Begin Health Growing Up Prebiotics is an ideal way to incorporate prebiotics into your child’s routine. By feeding the “good” bugs in our digestive system with the unique blend of Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOs) and fiber from chicory root inulin, Begin Health Growing Up Prebiotics is a great way to support your child’s overall health.  

1. Martínez Leo, E. E., & Segura Campos, M. R. (2020). Effect of ultra-processed diet on gut microbiota and thus its role in neurodegenerative diseases. Nutrition, 71, 110609. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2019.110609  

2. Taylor, L. A., & Rachman, S. J. (1988). The effects of blood sugar level changes on cognitive function, affective state, and somatic symptoms. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 11(3), 279–291. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf00844433  

3. Wang, G.-J. (2018). Impact of sugar on the body brain and behavior. Frontiers in Bioscience, 23(12), 2255–2266. https://doi.org/10.2741/4704  

4. Tan, H.-E., Sisti, A. C., Jin, H., Vignovich, M., Villavicencio, M., Tsang, K. S., Goffer, Y., & Zuker, C. S. (2021). The gut–brain axis mediates sugar preference. Yearbook of Paediatric Endocrinology. https://doi.org/10.1530/ey.18.15.6  

Summary Processed foods have both short-term and long-term affects on your children’s health. Short-term your child can experience blood sugar highs and lows, long-term these foods have the ability to alter your child’s microbiome. Try introducing whole grains, fatty fish and Growing Up Prebiotics into their diet to help introduce fiber, reduce inflammation and replenish good bacterial growth in the gut, respectively.

Dr. Nicole Avena



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