Is the Nutritional Craze Hurting Your Anxious Child?

child eating

As evidenced by things like Botox and the French Revolution, some things have a tendency to get out of hand. The same holds true for the ongoing slate of nutritional trends that can actually do more harm than good for your anxious child.

Every other food item seems to sport labels proclaiming how low-calorie, low-fat or gluten-free life can be if you just eat their product. Studies have shown that things like sugar and caffeine are not particularly healthy choices for anxious children, but taking healthy eating to the extreme can be just as detrimental.

This does not mean you should turn your anxious child’s life into a soda pop and candy bar bonanza, but it does mean you would do well not to fanatically fall prey to the slate of popular eating trends if they compromise your anxious child’s nutrition. Malnutrition, unfortunately, is alive and well right here in the United States, but you can avoid it by ensuring your child receives a well-rounded diet stocked with adequate calories and nutrition. 

“Even people who have plenty to eat may be malnourished if they don’t eat foods that provide the right nutrients, vitamins, and minerals,” points out.

Danger No 1: The Picky Eater

You child refuses milk, hates wheat bread and won’t eat his broccoli. Does that mean he’s going to suffer from malnourishment? It’s not likely. Severe malnutrition is probably not in the cards, provided the picky eater will at least pick at a variety of healthy available foods.

“Even finicky eaters usually get adequate calories and nutrients,” KidsHealth says.

Of course, if your child starts becoming lethargic or doesn’t seem to be growing at an average rate, get thee to the doctor for a nutritional evaluation.

Danger No. 2: The Special Diet Crew 

Yes, this is where the vegetarianism for children controversy would fit in. One side of the camp cites a study that says vegetarian children have slower than normal growth patterns. The other side of the camp says the study might not have looked at the physical builds of the rest of the family and that there are all kinds of definitions for the word “normal.”

While we’re going to avoid the headache by not taking a stance on the issue, we are going to say that the bottom line remains ensuring your child receives proper nutrition and adequate calories.

KidsHealth says parents following a vegetarian diet have to be extra careful to ensure their children get enough nutrients, particularly when it comes to protein, B12 and other vitamins.

The Vegetarian Resource Group underscores the importance of children getting adequate calories on a vegetarian diet. This is especially important since fiber can quickly fill up children’s small stomachs and vegetarian foods in general can be very low in calories. Lack of fat can be another issue that impedes growth and development, and the group warns that fat should never be limited for children younger than 2 years old. 

Danger No. 3: The Allergy Overload 

One child may be allergic to peanuts. Another might break out when faced with shellfish. A third may have to avoid dairy or he gets bloated and feels sick for a week.

While many food allergies or food intolerances can be valid, a slew of others seem to be stemming from self-diagnosis, misdiagnosis or even over-zealous diagnoses that claim a child can’t eat anything but bean sprouts.

“Proven” food allergies in children, and adults, have been on the rise, according to Australia’s Body and Soul website. But many so-called food intolerances that are sprouting up like weeds often have little to no evidence backing up an increase.

Others have, however, been valid. A study out of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute looked at 5,000 infants and found 10 percent of them did have adverse reactions to several common allergy-inducing foods, such as peanuts, shellfish, dairy and eggs.

Study leader and allergy specialist Professor Katie Allen was surprised by such a high percentage, but she also pointed out that other so-called intolerances can stem from other factors. Gluten, for example, has a very bad rap. But adverse reactions may be caused by chemicals typically used with gluten in foods, and not the gluten itself.

Prematurely banning an entire food group can be hazardous, not to mention highly annoying when dining out. Another hazardous move is opting for mail-order or DIY food allergy kits that one allergy specialist said “are as useful as reading your tea leaves – but potentially more harmful.”

Basing an entire diet on a self-diagnosis or DIY kit can lead to severe and unnecessary dietary restrictions that can inhibit growth and bring malnutrition to the table. 

Early Malnutrition Effects on Later Personality

It’s not just physical growth that’s affected by poor diets, either. Early malnutrition can result in detrimental personality traits down the line. A study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry checked out what happened to malnourished infants once they hit age 40.

Study participants had been malnourished as infants but ended up eating well thereafter. The study showed that attempting to “correct” that initial bout of malnutrition didn’t work out all that well. Forty-something adults who had been malnourished as infants exhibited a slate of personality traits that can be detrimental to a person’s overall well-being.

Adults malnourished as children had higher rates of:

  • Anxiety and stress
  • Anger and hostility
  • Depression
  • Shyness and suspicion
  • Egocentric tendencies

They had lower rates of:

  • Confidence
  • Altruism
  • Intellectual curiosity

Psychology Today blogger Gary Wenk, Ph.D., who doubles as a professor and author of Your Brain on Food, pointed out other studies that showed malnutrition in the womb led to an increased risk of later personality disorders and schizophrenia.

“The lack of specific critical nutrients indirectly influences adult personality by increasing the child’s distress level and suspicion towards others,” Wenk adds. “Making this situation even worse is the possibility that these personality traits will make the children more vulnerable to continued poor parenting.”

Thus an ugly, vicious cycle can begin, plunging a child deeper into distress and anxiety. Nip it all in the bud by feeding your anxious child the healthy diet he or she needs to be happy, strong and as anxiety-free as possible.


Study Info:

  • Malnutrition in the first year of life and personality at age 40. J Child Psychol Psychiatry (2013) PMID 23488644.
  • Growth of vegetarian children: The Farm Study. Pediatrics. 1989 Sep;84(3):475-81.

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