The role of nutritional medicine in children’s mental health

Following on from the recently released report by the government carried out by Telethon Kids Institute at the University of Western Australia, it is clear that there is a role for a more holistic view in the treatment and support of our children’s mental health and wellbeing.

The report showed very positive figures of those children asking for help, and utilising support services that were available. However, the report didn’t mention the important role of a balanced diet, supplements and vitamins, delivered via holistic consultations with integrative GPs, nutritionists, naturopaths or other qualified complementary practitioners.

Diet plays a very important role in mental health and wellbeing. In the womb the brain and nervous system is the first system to develop and at the most rapid rate. Then, as a baby grows and a child develops, the brain is constantly laying new neural pathways and is very affected by both the internal and external environments. The most recent evidence points again, to the importance of mothers’ diets for the physical and mental health of their children.

Research supports the role of diet and what are called externalising behaviours e.g. hyperactivity. Poor nutritional quality is independently associated with symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, there is much less research been carried out looking at the relationship between dietary intake in childhood and adolescence and internalising behaviours e.g. depressive symptoms, low mood or anxiety.

It may be the case that children and adolescents with the more internalising disorders or symptoms eat less nutrient-dense food as a form of self-medication. However, it is also very probable that the influence of early eating habits and nutritional intake has an important impact on affect.

A poor quality diet, lacking nutrient-dense foods may lead to nutrient deficiencies that have been associated with mental health issues.

For example, a low dietary intake of folate, zinc, and magnesium is associated with depressive disorders, whereas a lack of dietary long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are associated with anxiety disorders.

Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for the structure and function of brain cells. Because brain growth is most rapid in utero and the first few years of childhood, an adequate supply of these essential fatty acids (EFAs) for pregnant mothers and infants is desirable to ensure optimal brain health and function.

Key nutrients to happy, healthy children

Vitamin C: available in citrus fruits, pineapple, pawpaw, strawberries, vegetables – sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, broccoliZinc: great sources include – beef, eggs, milk, liver, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, sea food, capsicums
Calcium: sources include – almonds, green leafy vegetables, dairy products, buckwheatMagnesium: sources include – almonds, eggs, cashews, seeds, wholegrain cereals, leafy greens
Vitamin A: available in – apricots, butter, carrots, eggs, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, fishIron: good sources include – apricots, avocadoes, parsley, pine nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, chicken
Omega 3 fatty acids: sources include – fish, nut oils, flaxseedsVitamin Bs: nuts and seeds, beef, whole grains, eggs, milk, fish, oranges, avocadoes,
Vitamin E: good sources include – almonds, beef, eggs, sunflower seeds, hazel nutsProbiotic: the best sources are – yoghurt (ensure no added sugars), kefir, fermented vegetables, tempeh, aged cheeses.It is often a good idea to supplement with a probiotic for kids – healthy gut function plays a vital role in their energy, sleep, and mental health function. make sure you choose one suitable for the age of your child

Also look to remove (or seriously cut back) artificial colourings and additives in food as well as any added sugars.


If you have a fussy eater, a child that is not eating very much due to sickness or one that partakes in a lot of sport or other physical activity, it is often worth considering supplements along side their diet.

Some supplement recommendations for the little ones below...


O’Neill, A, 2014, Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: A systematic review, Am J Public Health. Available at:

O’Neill A, 2014, Preventing mental health problems in offsrping by targeting dietary intake of pregnant women, BMC Med. Available at:

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