Generalized anxiety disorder is a mental health condition in which the individual spends a large amount of time worrying and experiences physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, trembling, difficulty breathing or jumpiness. A child with anxiety may feel nervous about schoolwork, peer relationships or perceived environmental dangers. Children with anxiety should receive ongoing mental health care 1. Treatment typically involves talk therapy and may include family therapy or medication. In some cases, following a healthy diet can help reduce symptoms.
Foods to Eat
Like all children, an anxious child should eat a nutritionally balanced diet containing fruits, vegetables, milk products, whole grains, healthy oils and protein-rich foods, such as meat, chicken, seafood and beans. Dr. Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist, recommends that anxious individuals eat fish at least twice a week to improve omega-3 fatty acid levels, which are important for healthy brain function. Good fish choices include tuna, salmon, mackerel and herring. He also suggests eating protein for breakfast: good choices include eggs, milk, lean turkey sausage and lean ham.
Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain breads and rolls, whole wheat cereal and slow-cooked oatmeal, may reduce anxiety levels. These foods contain B vitamins, necessary for healthy nerve transmission, and they stimulate the proper amount of insulin, which allows tryptophan in the blood to reach the brain and increase serotonin levels. The increased serotonin level can induce a feeling of calmness. Encourage your child to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
Foods to Avoid or Limit
Anxious children should avoid caffeine as it can make anxiety worse and interfere with sleep. Limit simple carbohydrates, such as sugary snacks and sugared sodas. Monitor your child for food sensitivities or intolerances, but discuss them with your child's physician before eliminating them from the diet.
Eating During Anxious Episodes
A child may not want to eat while anxious, and pressuring her to eat may lead to vomiting later. Offer a cold beverage or a light snack, such as berries or whole wheat crackers, during acute anxiety. Find out if your child has difficulty eating at school due to anxiety and try different foods if she isn't eating the school lunch or food you prepare her from home. A cold sandwich, cold pudding, gelatin or finger foods may be well-tolerated at this time. If your child complains of stomachaches and refuses to eat, seek a physician's guidance.
Keep mealtimes pleasant, and make it clear that mealtime is a time for family bonding as well as eating. See if your child will eat without encouragement and avoid threatening your child or bribing him to eat. Save conversations about the anxiety for a time other than when the child is trying to eat. Ask your child if he would like to help select the menu or prepare the family dinner.
Occasionally, stress hormones cause a child to overeat. Similarly, a child may become an emotional eater or overeat out of habit. To limit total caloric intake, keep only healthy snacks in the house and allow your child to munch on fruit or raw veggies when she wants to eat between meals. Help your child develop healthy coping mechanisms, such as talking out her problems, engaging in sports or meditating instead of relying on food.
- “Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing: Concepts of Care in Evidence-Based Practice;” Mary C. Townsend, M.N., A.P.R.N.; 2006
- Middle Tennessee State University: Food, Mood and Neurotransmitters
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