Nutrition & Lifestyle tips to aid children in uncertain times - Louise Mercieca



There’s been an increased focus in recent years in the prevalence of mental health problems amongst children – back in February I wrote about children’s mental health and included this quote;

“According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people.  The term mental health is thankfully becoming more accepted and understood as is the variety of issues that come under the general term of mental health.  These include; anxiety, depression and conduct disorder. “

The world now looks a very different place to how it was in February and the impact of this global pandemic will be felt for months and years to come.  Even if we successfully ease out of lockdown and gradually return to new levels of normality this situation will leave its’ mark on our children.  The question is what kind of impact and to what degree will children be affected?

Lockdown was in effect a lot easier to understand, the instructions given were clear and the reason behind them obvious.  There was something nasty, it could easily pass from person to person so we were doing our bit by staying inside.  The issue with coming out of lockdown is that this situation has not changed yet we have to learn new ways to live with it.  That, takes a lot more understanding, causes a lot more anxiety and is a lot more complicated to implement.

There are many issues associated with reintegration, there is undoubtedly a complex combination of emotions and practical considerations, how do we approach all of this for our overall health and well-being?

My approach through my work is to make the links between the foods we eat and our health.  In this case I will be focusing on how stressful situations often lead to an emotional response to our food. I want to stress the importance of the link between our diet, our mood and our ability to manage stress, worry and anxiety. It’s comforting to reach for something that makes us feel happier or calmer, the issue is that often the foods we reach for are the wrong sorts of food biologically.  The good news is we create the food memories that link our emotions to the foods we crave.  When it comes to food choices for children, we can help them to create and shape healthy choices.

Traditional comfort foods are often high sugar, high fat items.  There is a biological reason why we reach for these items but that biology leaves its’ mark.  When we eat these foods to ‘comfort/soothe/reward ourselves we create a neural pathway linking the pleasure we got from that item – this means that next time we feel sad and want comfort, our body associates food and in particular that food.  We will biologically remember the ‘good feelings’ meaning that we will subconsciously crave the biscuit/chocolate/cakes once again.  You can see how this leads to cycles of emotional eating and associated problems with weight and food relationships!

Nutrition is often quite straight forward but when it comes to food, pleasure, reward and our food memories it all gets more complicated as we go into the biology of nutritional science linked with our emotions.  

Let’s look at sugar – this tends to be the primary ingredient in most people’s comfort foods, but what does the biology of eating sugar, particularly when used as an emotional ‘pick me up’ really do to our body both in the short and long-term effects?

Sugar itself isn’t really the problem, we humans have survived for thousands of years with sugar being a part of our diet.  The problem now is the quantity of sugar and the prevalence of it in foods you may or may not expect it to be in, the introduction of more artificial ingredients and the lack of nutrients.  Everyone knows that a piece of cake/chocolate has sugar in and that we should eat these things in moderation, as part of a balanced diet.  But here lies the problem! Due to changes to our food landscape over the last 40 years (particularly the last 20) that balance has shifted considerably to the ‘unhealthy’ options as the norm.  

How does this link with our emotions? Food today is largely designed to be addictive and not filling, the natural response biologically when eating is to produce the hormone Leptin which tells your body you are full.  Many foods today hinder that production so you find you can eat more than you realise, often without even tasting or appreciating what you have eaten (who has looked at an empty packet of biscuits/box of chocolates and wondered where they had gone before realising they themselves had eaten them?!).   This is very common, and is not, down to individual greed but a biological imbalance.  

If we travel back in time to when sugar was rare, our ancestors would come upon a fruit tree/bush and gorge, the reason being they would never know when they might come across one again!  The body was designed to enable an almost limitless consumption of sweet foods, as historically these were rare and a good source of energy.  If we relate that ‘almost limitless capacity’ to today, food manufacturers use this to their advantage, knowing full well that a person could consume an entire bag of jelly babies in one sitting!   The problem with this in modern day life is that these foods are not rare they are everywhere and due to their addictive nature and ‘feel good’ factor they are often the foods we reach for in a stressful situation.

If we look inside our brain, we can see how the biology of food addiction (particularly sugar) is linked to both short and long-term emotional issues: -

The Nucleus Accumbens is the area of the brain most adversely affected by a high sugar (and high trans-fat) diet.  It is the same area of the brain that is stimulated by hard drugs.  This is the area of the brain which is associated with pleasure, reward and reinforcement (the more you do of the same thing the more you expect to do it – things become a habitual norm – this  is the danger with using certain foods as a comfort/reward, they become a habit)

The VTA (Ventral tegmental area) this is a dopamine regulatory area – high sugar and trans fats are harmful to this area.

The Substantia Nigra – is one of the areas of the brain associated with reward, unlike the nucleus accumbens this area of the brain is also associated with addiction. Once again, unsurprisingly sugar and trans-fats are bad for this area of your brain.

Hippocampus – the ‘emotional’ response to eating will be driven from here.  Unfortunately for sugar addicts, the hippocampus is associated with memory and some studies have shown that excess sugar intake will potentially reduce the size of your hippocampus thus directly affecting the memory centre of the brain.  

For more information (and a fairly heavy read! Take a look at this article from Neuroscience and Bio behavioural Reviews – The impact of sugar consumption on stress, driven, emotional  and addictive behaviours

As I mentioned above, we can create healthy neural pathways, food memories and limit dependence on ‘comfort foods’ this doesn’t mean never eating them!  It just means controlling how and when.  Recognising that eating will not solve any emotional concerns, in fact, biologically it will make them worse and learning ourselves/teaching children to develop other coping mechanisms outside of food.  Please don’t underestimate how deep-rooted food memories and food habits go on a biological level.

Whilst nutrition plays a major role in our emotional well-being it is only one part of the jigsaw, I spoke with two childhood mental health experts to get expert opinions on the unprecedented situation that we find ourselves in.  Getting the nutritional balance right will certainly help to not exacerbate our heightened anxious and emotional state but I wanted to get some practical advice: -


Top tips from Nicky Emerton, Co-Founder of Happy Confident Kids – neuroscience and play based therapy.

  1. Gather all of the information that you can from reliable sources, with scary situations comes lots of ‘experts’ particularly on social media! Try to limit your time on these platforms where sensationalism is rife and information is easily taken/presented out of context
  2. Make decisions that are right for your situation.  Many people may feel pressured to follow a decision or feel guilty for their choice.  Make your decision based on the facts that are right for you and then be content with it.  But, don’t put pressure on yourself that the decision is final, this situation is fluid and you can move with it.
  3. Listen to children, allow them to express any emotion (sadness, anger etc) it is not our role to say ‘everything is ok, don’t worry’ that encourages them to bottle up feelings or makes them feel that their emotions are not valid.  
    1. enabling them to express their emotions makes them feel part of the process
    2. use appropriate methods to try to ease worries; a journal, a worry jar – Nicky suggested one for the grown up so if the child was worrying about a bigger issue that could go in the grown-up jar.

Mental Health experts are warning of children suffering from loneliness and isolation, I spoke with Katy Harris, Child Consultant and Trainer - KLH Consulting Ltd.

“Children in enforced isolation or quarantine were five times higher to require mental health service input after previous pandemics. 

This suggests that the current social distancing measures enforced on children because of COVID-19 are likely to increase the risk of depression and probably anxiety, as well as possible post-traumatic stress. 

Children are likely to be experiencing worry, anxiety and fear, and this can include the types of fears that are very similar to those experienced by adults, such as a fear of dying, a fear of their relatives dying, or a fear of what it means to receive medical treatment.

Play is imperative for children. It has a very significant impact on their social development.  Critically, it is an important way of working through emotions and will therefore be one of the principal ways in which they cope with the isolating effects of the lockdown. For this reason, it is imperative that play is a focus for children when they return to school, over and above academic learning.  

The Forest School ethos and approach to resilience, confidence, independence and creativity is supported by numerous learning theories that have grown in popularity over the last few years.  Forest School and Outdoor learning models also offer templates for socially distanced schooling.    With benefits for maintaining physical distancing and minimising risk of transmission as part of the transition from lockdown back into early learning and childcare and school. 

In addition, being outdoors, is hugely beneficial to the wellbeing of children. Melatonin is a hormone which controls sleep, and serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is tied to states of wakefulness and being in a “good mood.”  When the body perceives sunlight, serotonin and endorphin levels increase. And the more sunlight the human body is exposed to, the more serotonin the brain produces.  The overall effect is “downtime” at night and “uptime” during the day.  Researchers Have Discovered a Strong Correlation Between Severe Vitamin D Deficiency and COVID-19 Mortality Rates”

To summarise, easing back into any sort of normality, adapting to ‘the new normal’ is going to be messy. This is a world new to everyone, it’s helpful for children to know that the grown-ups will also make mistakes and learn from them, we will all get through it together.


Louise Mercieca is an award-winning Nutritional Therapist, Author and Presenter with her own food channel for Early Years nutrition, which you can more about here; She’s passionate about formative nutrition and also works with adults on preventative nutrition. You can find out more about Louise and her way of working by reading her introductory article for CACHE Alumni here;