If you want your infant to develop healthy executive functioning (things like healthy working memory, planning abilities, organizing abilities, and behavioral inhibition) as they mature, you may want to put their executive functioning on a diet, a healthy diet. A study utilizing the data of 294 families involved in the STRONG Kids2 birth cohort study found the diet of 18-to 24-month-old infants correlated with their executive functioning. In this study, infants who ate more sugary snacks and processed foods were more likely to have problems with emotional control, behavioral inhibition, and planning and organizing—all components of executive functioning. That may not seem like a big deal for 2-year-olds. After all, “Kids will be kids.” But previous research suggests that children who had a higher consumption of sugary, processed foods also scored lower on academic tests than those who ate a healthy diet. And another study found that a healthy diet was associated with better executive functioning than a diet high in snack foods in both children and adolescents.
What’s the takeaway for our families? If we want our children to develop optimal executive functioning skills in the present and in the future–if we want our children to exhibit their greatest abilities to plan, organize, inhibit unwanted behaviors, and effectively manage emotions–put away the donuts, chips, and cookies. Have healthy snacks and drinks on hand instead. Keep a fresh supply of fruits, nuts, and water for your children to snack on. You’ll be nurturing better executive functioning which, in the long run, means greater academic success and healthier social relationships. Go ahead…have a snack…there’s apples in the fridge.
Depression is a growing problem in our country, especially among our teens and young adults. However, an interesting study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests a way to limit depression in your family. This study involved 72 males between 18- and 25-years-old who scored in the moderate to severe range of depression based on Beck’s Depression Inventory Scale. These young men were randomly assigned to one of two groups for twelve weeks. One group talked with a researcher about neutral topics like movies or hobbies. The other group received education and support to help them eat a Mediterranean Diet. Those who ate the Mediterranean Diet showed a significant decrease in depressive symptoms. Amazingly, 100% of them showed significant improvement in depressive symptoms and 36% dropped from moderate/severe depression to low/minimal depression on the Becks Depression Inventory Scale.
Why would a healthy diet like the Mediterranean Diet have such a profound effect on well-being and mood? Because it provides a person with the nutrients they need to act as the precursors and building blocks for the neurotransmitters that promote positive mental health.
You can promote your family’s happiness, well-being, and even their flourishing by building a healthy family environment. It sounds too simple…too good to be true, I know. But a survey study from the University of Otago in New Zealand confirms it. In this study, researchers collected data on the sleep habits, exercise habits, and dietary habits of 1,111 young adults. They found sleep quality to be the most important health behavior predicting mental health and well-being—more than sleep quantity, exercise, and diet. That’s not to say these other factors aren’t important. They are. For instance, sleep quantity impacted depressive symptoms and well-being. Interestingly, too little sleep (under 8 hours) AND too much sleep (over 18 hours) contributed to an increase in depressive symptoms and a decrease in well-being for young adults. That middle ground, 8-9.7 hours of sleep, seemed to be the sweet spot in giving the best results for mood and well-being. (For more on sleep and creating an environment to promote quality sleep, read Your Teen & the Importance of Sleep and The Enemy of Teen Sleep. The information can apply to all ages.)
Physical activity also had an impact on depressive symptoms and well-being (although not as significant an impact as sleep quality). In fact, previous studies have shown that even an hour of physical activity improves mood!
Finally, eating raw fruits and vegetables impacted mood and well-being. Once again, we have to aim for the sweet spot in fruit and vegetable consumption. Less than 2 servings OR more than 8 servings lowered well-being (but not depressive symptoms). The sweet spot for improving well-being through the consumption of raw fruits and vegetables fell at 4.8 servings a day. (Another study suggested 8 servings had the greatest impact.)
So, if you want your family to experience less depression and a greater sense of well-being, get a good night’s sleep, engage in some daily physical activity, and eat your vegetables and fruits. It is well worth it to see your children in a positive mood and feeling good.