Protein for a healthy brain, better mood and balanced behaviour

Children (or adults!) with mood or behaviour issues need to get enough protein in their diet.  Ideally, there should be some protein at every meal or snack.  That doesn’t mean eating meat 5 times a day, it’s just a matter of being mindful to include some high protein foods such as nuts, legumes or eggs.

So why is this protein so important?

There are a few reasons why this protein is useful.

Blood sugar

Eating protein with a carbohydrate will lower the glycaemic load of the carbohydrates.  Fluctuating blood sugar due to eating high glycaemic index foods will affect a child’s mood, behaviour and IQ.  Sugars and starches are quickly broken down to glucose during digestions and absorbed into the blood stream, giving a sudden burst of energy.  The higher the glycaemic load of the meal, the greater the fluctuation in blood sugar.

Neurotransmitters.  These are the chemical messengers in the brain and have a huge influence on things like mood and behaviour.  To make neurotransmitters, you need amino acids.  Amino acids come from protein.  So if your child isn’t eating enough protein, they won’t be able to make enough neurotransmitters.

Serotonin is one of these really important neurotransmitters.  It has a big impact on mood and sleep, and it is made from the amino acid tryptophan.

Eating lots of protein rich foods such as these will help you make enough serotonin:

  • fish
  • turkey
  • chicken
  • cheese
  • beans
  • tofu
  • eggs

If you child already is low in serotonin, either because they aren’t eating enough protein, or because they are always stressed, they may need a supplement.

A perpetually stressed child, or one with a chronic infection won’t make serotonin efficiently, so finding ways to help the child relax and treating infections are important too.  A great way to see if your child isn’t making serotonin well is to do an Organic Acids Test (OAT).

A child with a serotonin deficiency will tend towards:

  • depression (especially in winter)
  • social anxiety
  • aggression
  • obsessive compulsive disorder
  • carbohydrate cravings
  • constipation

Another important neurotransmitter is dopamine.  If a child doesn’t have enough dopamine they will have addictive tendencies, restless legs, be unmotivated, have dull dreams and be forgetful.

To boost dopamine, and therefore boost focus and motivation, kids need to eat foods high in the amino acid tyrosine.

This can be found in these protein rich foods:

  • almonds
  • eggs
  • fish
  • chicken


Protein fills you up more than carbohydrates do, which means eating protein helps you manage your weight.  This means your child won’t reach for snacks as often, which is a great thing to help avoid artificial additive and junk foods.

What foods can cause behaviour problems?

Do you have a child that has tantrums they should have grown out of already?

Does your child have mood swings, and can be sent into a rage over the most trivial things?

Is your child spacey at school, and struggles to focus?

There are some changes you can make to their diet to improve all these things!

You might have heard about the Glycaemic index (GI).  It’s a rating system to let you know how much a food is going to raise your blood sugar.  Eating a low glycaemic index diet is a well known way to lose weight and control high blood sugar issues.

It is also great to regulate behaviour!

Have you ever had that hangry feeling?  When you are due to have a meal, but haven’t got round to it yet?  This can make you very irrational. You can’t think straight, and you lash out for no reason.

This can happen to children too, when they eat foods that make their blood sugar spike and then fall very dramatically.  It affects their mood and behaviour, and it doesn’t matter how much you reason with them or discipline them.  Their emotional regulation systems are out of control.

Here are my top 10 tricks to help regulate your child’s blood sugar and their mood:

  1. Stay away from regular white bread at breakfast. Opt for lower glycaemic index choices like sourdough, grainy bread, porridge made from rolled oats (not quick oats) or a paleo bread.  Or you could serve up some eggs and fried mushrooms, or my breakfast pulled pork instead.


  1. Have protein and fat at every meal or snack. So if you child is having an apple after school, chop it up and give it with a peanut butter dip (or sunflower seed butter if allergies are an issue).  Serve some hummus with carrots, or just a boiled egg!


  1. Stay away from highly processed, high carbohydrate foods. Some of the worst foods for spiking your child’s blood sugar are rice crackers, rice cakes and potato chips.  Try to replace these with foods that have a lower GI.  Good choices are raw nuts, seed crackers, roasted chickpeas or fava beans.


  1. Children should only drink water. Drinks like juice, energy drinks or soft drink are full of sugar and will cause huge fluctuations in blood sugar.  Save your money, and stop buying juice, soft drinks and energy drinks and just give water.  Beware of smoothies you buy in cafes and food courts as they have a lot of sugar.


  1. If your child is used to a sweet treat after dinner like ice cream or a cake, switch over to lower GI treats instead. You could serve Greek yoghurt with some frozen berries instead


  1. Brown rice has a bit more fibre than white rice, and is more of a whole food, but it is still high GI. There are lots of red rices and black rices on the market now, and readily available in the supermarket.  Try these instead, and they have big gut health benefits too (always helpful for mood!).  Basmati is the lowest GI white rice, or introduce your children to quinoa as a rice substitute.


  1. Lots of kids have 2 minute noodles after school, as it is something they can prepare themselves. These are full of additives (which we’ll talk about in another blog!) and very high GI.  Look out for buckwheat or soba noodles, and prepare some on a Sunday night with some stir fried veggies and garlic.  Put into single serve bowls in the fridge, and your child can still help themselves.


  1. It’s sad to say that potatoes are very high GI. The good news is that you can cook potatoes, let them cool, and then serve as a potato salad the next day and the GI will be much lower.  This can even go into the lunch box as a sandwich or cracker alternative.


  1. Bring back the beans! Pulses (also called legumes) which include lentils, beans and chickpeas.  These can be served with a main meal, instead of rice, pasta or potatoes.  Use cannellini beans to make a mash, just like mashed potatoes.  Cook a dahl with lentils and serve alongside a curry.  Or roast some chickpeas and throw them into a salad.


  1. Last but not least, if your child has mood swings, they shouldn’t be eating lollies, cakes, muffins and chocolate. These cause dramatic fluctuations in blood sugar and massive crashes when the blood sugar drops.  Reconsider your mindset that children are entitled to treats.  Children are entitled to happiness, love, and parent’s devotion.  Not treats.