What are you feeding your brain?



The correlation between nutrition and behavior, mental health


It has long been established that there is a link between fast foods and childhood obesity. As we learn more about the role good nutrition plays on our physical health, more information is coming out about the impact of food on mental health and your brain.

In 2013, the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry published a study that found that diets of pregnant women could have an impact on the behaviors of their children. Pregnant women who ate diets high in sugar and fat reported higher incidents of behavior problems and aggression in their children during early childhood. Additionally, children fed high fat and high sugar diets tended to have higher rates of depression and anxiety. Researchers are currently studying the addictive qualities of excess sugar.

One of the most significant ways that excess sugar affects the brain is in reduction of a chemical called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). This chemical is necessary in learning and retaining new memories. Therefore, levels have implications for academic and occupational performance in children as well as adults. There also appears to be a link between excess sugar consumption, shrinkage of a certain region of the brain (left hippocampus), and development of dementia or Alzheimer’s later in life (go to Medscape.com).

The American Heart Association recommends that children have just three teaspoons (four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon) per day of sugar in their diet. A soda has 11 teaspoons of sugar (44 grams) and a serving of gummy worms has approximately 5.5 teaspoons of sugar (22 grams of sugar). Kids’ meals at popular fast food restaurants contain between five and almost 10 teaspoons of sugar (22-42 grams of sugar) according to the Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine.

Additionally, there are a number of foods with hidden sugars, such as spaghetti sauce, bread, fruit juice and salad dressing. There are over 50 different names for sugar, including corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, sucrose and sorbitol.

TV commercials and advertising have a profound impact on what children are fed and what they want to eat. According to the Prevention Institute, the fast food industry spent over five billion dollars annually marketing their food to children. The focus in these commercials on fast and low-nutrition foods has led to increased obesity and chronic disease in children and adults. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that if current diets are not modified, one-in-three adults will have diabetes by 2050.

It is your pattern of eating across the lifespan that determines the quality of your health. The most important thing that parents can do is to reduce their own sugar intake. Children model the behaviors exhibited by their parents. When making changes in eating patterns, a gradual approach is best, substituting healthier choices steadily.

Start making small changes with breakfast, which has been called the most important meal of the day for both adults and children. You want to give your children good nutritious food that will fuel their ability to concentrate, learn, and retain information throughout the school day. Here are some suggestions to improve nutrition for you and your children, reduce sugar consumption, and improve the health of your brain:

  1. Stay informed: read the labels on the packaging of the food.
  2. Reduce or eliminate soda and sweetened fruit juice.
  3. Substitute sugary snacks for snacks such as fruit, nuts, or unflavored yogurts.
  4. Reduce portion size.
  5. Reduce or eliminate sugary cereals, instead choose whole grain and lower sugar.


If you need further information, contact your primary care provider or NorthPoint Health and Wellness Behavioral Health at 612-543-2700.

Deirdre Annice Golden, Ph.D., LP, is director of Behavioral Health for NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center Behavioral Health Clinic, 1313 Penn Ave. N. She welcomes reader responses to Deirdre.Golden@co.hennepin.mn.us, or call 612-543-2705.