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Protein Power and the Food-Mood Connection

Have you noticed how certain foods have an impact on your child’s behaviour? It is likely we have all witnessed some negative impact from high-sugar foods. Can you recall a birthday cake extravaganza followed by a spectacular meltdown? An evening chocolate treat that turned into a struggle with the otherwise straightforward bedtime routine? Why does this happen? Our brains have biochemical messengers called neurotransmitters which help
it make the right connections. Certain foods and combinations of food have an impact on how these chemicals function – for better or worse.

In previous articles, I have written at length on “the worse”: the negative impact of quick influxes of sugar and simple carbohydrates on the nervous system. The problem with sugary foods is that without fiber, protein or good fat as a buffer, they get quickly broken down so that they are rapidly absorbed into the blood stream, causing abrupt blood sugar fluctuations. This “up and down” of glucose leads to a correlated “unsteadiness” of the brain and nervous system.


Time to focus on the “better”!

Time to focus on the “better”! Foods that contain protein have a positive impact on mood and behaviour and mitigate the
rollercoaster effect of simple carbohydrates. How do they do this? Proteins are made up of amino acids which provide the building blocks for neurotransmitters (our “feel good” chemicals). Tyrosine, for instance, is an amino acid that comes from protein-rich foods which is converted into the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine – the chemicals responsible for alertness and focused energy. Another amino acid is tryptophan which relaxes and calms the brain (and is attributed to the infamous “turkey coma”!). A meal that provides good quality protein will balance both types of neurotransmitters and provide your child with the fuel to focus, learn and feel at ease – which usually translates into positive behaviour.


There are twenty two amino acids, nine of which are “essential”

There are twenty two amino acids, nine of which are “essential”, meaning that our bodies cannot make them and we must obtain them from food sources. Typically, land animal and fish sources of protein are called “complete” because they have all nine “essential” amino acids. Many plant sources, like legumes, nut and most seeds are called “incomplete” because they need to be paired with a carbohydrate (think beans and rice, nut butter or wholegrain crackers) to provide the full complement of essential amino acids.


Hemp seeds are unique in that they are a complete source within a plant protein.

Hemp seeds are unique in that they are a complete source within a plant protein. Protein is also the key building block in growth and development – particularly important for children as they grow and their need for it increases during growth spurts. It is a major component of our muscles, organs and skin, helps our body repair and make new cells and assists in proper wound healing.


Filling your child’s plate with protein […] will help reduce rounds on the behavioural rollercoaster y providing solid fuel for a steady and supported nervous system.

So what is the take home message? Filling your child’s plate with protein at every meal (alongside calming carbohydrates, good fats and a colourful range of vegetables!) will not only support growth and development, it will help reduce rounds on the behavioural rollercoaster by providing solid fuel for a steady and supported nervous system.


From the Spring 2016 issue of Ecoparent Magazine (www.ecoparent.ca) available in hard copy at Chapters/Indigo, Nature’s Fare Markets, Whole Foods, and other independent newsstands and baby stores. Dr. Heidi is a regular food and health contributor to Ecoparent.

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