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.

7 small steps to take to boost your child’s mood through food this New Year
  1. Add more vegetables to their diet.

95% of Australian children are not getting enough vegetables, so I am going to assume that your child is in the 95%!  Don’t try to squeeze their five serves of vegetables into dinner.  It just won’t fit!  Spread them through the day.  If you have a serve at breakfast, a serve at sip and crunch, a serve at lunch, that only leaves 2 serves for dinner.  That is so achievable.  Lots of the recipes in my online program sneak in veggies, like blueberry and zucchini cookies or sweet potato pancakes for breakfast.  You’ll be easily hitting 5 serves per day.  Diversity is really important in your veggies.  Different vegetables give different benefits.  Download my rainbow chart and stick it on the fridge so the kids can get involved.


  1. Cut down the sugar.

This is a hard one, not just for the kids, but for the parents.  Sugar is bad for children’s behaviour, bad for their teeth, and bad for their metabolism.  Type 2 diabetes is being increasingly seen in children in the last decade, because of poor diets.  Set your child up for future health by cutting sugar out of their diet.  Parents often tell me they are worried their child won’t have enough energy without sugar in their diet, but this is nothing to worry about.  They will be getting lots of carbohydrates from their fruit and vegetables.  The other worry parents have is about depriving their child of treats.  Children won’t look back on their childhood and think their parents deprived them by not giving them enough sugar.  Children value quality time with their parents, so make that a priority, not sugar!


  1. Include some fermented foods in your child’s diet.

Fermented foods are full of good bacteria, so by consuming them, you are giving your child’s gut health an immediate boost.  And remember from my article on the gut-brain connection that brain health is absolutely influenced by gut health.  If your child hasn’t had fermented foods before, introduce them very slowly, or your child could get a belly ache.  If your child tolerates dairy, milk kefir or real yoghurt is a good place to start.  If they are dairy free, go for water kefir, sauerkraut juice or sauerkraut.  I steer away from kombucha for kids as it is made with tea, therefore contains caffeine.  If you make it yourself you can use rooibos tea and make it caffeine free, but make sure you don’t ferment it so much that it becomes alcoholic!


  1. Cut down refined carbohydrates.

A lot of kids exist on a diet that is predominantly refined carbohydrate.  Think of the child that has cornflakes with sugar for breakfast, rice crackers for morning tea, a Vegemite sandwich for lunch, a muesli bar for afternoon tea and pasta for dinner.  Eating so many refined carbohydrates is bad for your gut bacteria, as they get starved.  All the refined carbohydrates are digested high up in their digestive system, and there is nothing left for the gut bacteria in the large intestine to eat.  Increase fat and protein in their diet, and replace the refined carbohydrate with fruit and vegetables. My online program has new recipes every week to help you easily make this transition.


  1. Consider reducing or removing gluten.

Lots of people are sensitive to gluten, but they may not realise it!  The best way to test is to strictly remove gluten for a month, then reintroduce it and see what happens.  When you cut out gluten, you might find that the headaches you had grown accustomed to magically disappear.  Or that lingering gym injury is suddenly better.  Most people eat so much gluten, they don’t realise that they have inflammation from eating it.  Think of it like a windscreen – when the windscreen is dirty, you never notice a bug landing on it.  When you clean the windscreen (remove the gluten), you suddenly notice every little bug that lands.  ADHD and other health issues are directly related to inflammation.

Cut out the gluten – reduce the inflammation – improve behaviour. 

It’s hard to say why we are getting sensitive to gluten, but I have a few theories.

  • We eat gluten-containing foods 4-5 times a day, so we have overdosed, and now we are sensitive.
  • Grains are heavily sprayed with chemicals, so perhaps it isn’t the gluten we are reacting to, but the agricultural chemicals
  • Our gut health has deteriorated so much due to processed food and too much medicine that we don’t have the right gut bacteria to digest it any more
  • Grains used to be fermented for 24 hours to make a sourdough bread. Now, for economic reasons, we have sped up the baking process, and there is no fermentation and no pre-digestion of the gluten.
  • We also add gluten to lots of foods where it doesn’t belong, just so we can say it contains protein, or to improve the texture.


  1. Cut out additives

Food additives are harmful to human health in general and our kids are particularly sensitive.  There is lots of research going back decades about the effect additives have on kids health, particularly behaviour.  Some countries are more proactive than Australia and already insist that warnings go on foods containing some colours, to let parents know that their child’s behaviour will be adversely affected if they eat this food.  Unfortunately, Australia hasn’t prioritised this, and we consumers are still largely in the dark about the harmful effects of additives.  You can learn to scrutinise ingredient lists and ingredient numbers, but I don’t recommend it.  Even the additives we think might be ok, may not be ok in the amount we consume them, or when they are combined with other chemicals.  The much easier thing to do is to move away from processed food and towards real, whole foods.  Then you don’t need to learn about food additives!


  1. Be an advocate for your child.

As a parent, you want to do what is best for your child, but there are barriers such as time and money.  I highly recommend my online program “Create cool, calm and cooperative kids” for parents who want to make a positive change to their child’s diet but don’t know where to start.  It is very affordable, as you just pay 2 instalments of $99.  The modules are delivered to your inbox weekly and contain coaching videos, recipes and handouts. There is even a closed Facebook group where you can ask me questions as you go along.  Follow this link to jump onboard…

Tips for surviving the school holidays

Set meal and snack times and stick to them.

Kids tend to want to graze all day long during the holidays.

This grazing tends to be on snack food, rather than proper food.

The end result is that they don’t want to eat their dinner, and the cycle of snacking continues.

It can be really useful to agree on meal and snack times for the holidays.  So if a child says they are hungry outside of these agree times, you can tell them how long they need to wait.  Eating real food, and not just snacks is better for stabilising blood sugar. Low or high blood sugar has a big impact on mood.

Snack food also tends to have more flavours, colours and preservatives which are linked to ADHD symptoms.

Choose where you are going to eat out very carefully.

It’s nice to eat out in the holidays, however as you are going to be doing it a few times, you need to choose locations very carefully.

You can’t expect to take your child somewhere which serves junk food and expect them to go for a healthy option.

There isn’t a child on earth who would go to McDonalds and choose the salad!

When you go to a café, the kids menu is usually junk – chicken nuggets and chips, so avoid the kids menu at all costs.

It is much better to find somewhere that has adult meals you can share between a couple of kids, or between a parent and a child.

Stay away from deep fried foods, as the oil that is used is really inflammatory, and you really want to decrease inflammation in your child’s brain.

Monitor your how food is affecting your child’s mood.

Download my free food and symptom diary, and use this to help.

Write down everything your child eats and drinks, and how their mood is.

When you are with them all day long, and you do this for a few days, you may be able to see patterns between what they are eating and drinking and how their behaviour is.

Screen time.

Screens are hard to avoid during the holidays, and it is fair to say that most families will use devices as baby sitters at least some of the time.

There is a strong association between screen time under the age of 3 and ADHD.  Under the age of five, kids should have less than 60 minutes per day.  The screen time should be educational and watched with a parent.

How often does that happen?

Screen use can affect concentration, focus, mood and behaviour.  So keep screens to a minimum, and instead use the holidays to get your children into nature as much as possible.  ADHD has been called nature deficit syndrome, and being outdoors really helps sleep quality, which helps behaviour


Every parent knows that the last couple of weeks of term are a nightmare when it comes to kid’s behaviour.

Kids get very tired, and everything becomes a drama.

That makes it really important to use the holidays to catch up on rest.  Don’t overschedule your kids.  Allow time for boredom and creativity.

If you let them stay up late every night, the new term will start the same way the last one finished.

So set boundaries and limits to make sure everyone gets a rest.