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Food and Mood

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By: Argavan Nilforoush, RDN   |   August 11, 2022

We know we need food to survive—food gives us energy, helps us grow and keeps us healthy…the right food, anyway. All calories are not created equal. Instead of focusing just on macronutrients—the large amounts of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in foods we need—we should also pay attention to micronutrients. This is the fiber and antioxidants that keep us healthy.


Our gut is our “second brain” making the mind-body connection. Mood challenges, sleep disturbances, food aversions, and gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea or chronic constipation are red flags that something is going wrong inside a child’s body.


The Standard American Diet (SAD) is ultra-processed, ultra salty, ultra sugary and ultra high in saturated fat from industrial seed oils and poor-quality animal products. Studies have shown that 2/3 of calories come from refined and processed foods (soft drinks, packaged snacks and desserts), 1/4 come from animal-based foods and only about 1/10 come from plant-based foods, half of which are potatoes for French fries!).


Children with ADHD are especially sensitive to food dyes, which can worsen their symptoms. Also, GMO foods and pesticide residue such as glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer RoundUp, build up in children’s bodies and affect their gut and immune system. Did you know that over the past 50 years chemical dyes in foods increased 500%? The three dominant petroleum-based food dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6) make up 90% of the market.

There are other possible contributing factors such as MSG (monosodium glutamate), a fast food and processed food flavor enhancer. MSG is an excitotoxin, a type of neurotoxin that over-stimulates brain cells and profoundly affects mood and behavior. Aspartame, a widely used artificial sweetener sold under brand names NutraSweet and Equal can alter serotonin levels, which can lead to behavioral problems, anxiety, and other emotional disorders.


Furthermore, allergy or intolerance to certain things such as dairy or gluten, can contribute to mood imbalances.

What is a caregiver to do? Here are some baby steps to take today:

  1. Reduce or eliminate ultra-processed foods and snacks in the home. Remember that if it’s not in your fridge, pantry or countertop, kids can’t simply grab them.
  2. Reduce your exposure to GMO foods and foods exposed to glyphosate. Choose organic as much as you’re able. Yes, it is more expensive, but just starting with the dirty dozen and going organic for those options is a big step. The Environmental Working Group has updated its list of most pesticide contaminated fruit and vegetable items. Strawberries continue to be at the top of the list for 5 years straight. Also, there’s a Clean 15 List which is a list of conventionally raised produce items with the lowest pesticide levels.
  3. Cook at home as much as you’re able and time allows. That way you eat more whole foods daily, and you’re in control of the ingredients, cooking oils, sanitation methods and low toxin cookware and dishes. Get your kids involved and eat together!
  4. Pay attention to possible nutrient deficiencies—magnesium is a common one. Iron affects mood and sleep. Low iron levels contribute to not being able to fall asleep, dysregulated sleep all night and being tired all day! Higher omega-6 levels compared to omega-3 (from inflammatory cooking oils and lack of adequate omega-3 rich foods) can lead to increased inflammation in the body.
  5. Monitor digestive issues and daily bowel movements. Is your child chronically or intermittently constipated or do they have diarrhea? Pay attention to how your child feels and acts after they eat certain foods. Is your child eating enough or are they skipping meals and not meeting their daily nutritional needs?
  6. Seek out a professional to help you. There is WAY TOO MUCH INFORMATION out there that feels overwhelming and frustrating. For something that’s supposed to be simple, it’s complicated. You don’t have to suffer alone.


Remember that kids are not adults! Especially at different stages in their growth and development, the type and amount of food really do have a major impact. The right nutrition helps kids to feel good and grow well. What matters most is having a long lasting, wholesome relationship with food and feeling great from the inside out!

For more on Argavan Nilforoush, be sure to follow her on Instagram @babystepsnutrition, on her Facebook page: Baby Steps Nutrition Podcast, on Twitter @argavanRDN, on LinkedIn @ArgavanNilforoush and through her website

Argavan Nilforoush is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with over 13 years of experience working with families, infants, toddlers, older children and teens in inpatient and outpatient settings. She re-launched her private practice in August 2021. Baby Steps Nutrition offers individualized nutrition consulting and counseling services to children ages birth-21 years with a variety of medical conditions and health issues/concerns. 
Argavan also hosts the Baby Steps Nutrition Podcast, which can be found on Apple Podcasts. She covers a variety of topics related to nutrition and, health and wellness, which impacts children of all ages and stages. Each episode features insightful conversations with experts who offer tips, tricks, and resources to empower families to make positive changes every day that have a lasting impact.

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