My earliest professional training—before I ever studied nutrition—was in psychology, and to this day, nutrition and psychology remain the two fields I’m most interested in. More times than you might expect, they actually overlap.
This is one of those times: The return to school in 2021.
See, every year in a school-age kid’s life is a growth spurt. Their hormones may be kicking in, triggering all sorts of emotions and behaviors that weren’t there before; peer pressure becomes increasingly influential, especially in middle school and high school. The fear of “adulting” is hanging over them, and they can be overwhelmed, underprepared, and scared as heck.
And that’s when things were normal.
This past year was anything but. And it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that a lot of our kids are just plain disoriented, untethered from many of the things that gave their life structure, and generally pretty anxious about the fall.
I know from my own family that a year spent pretty much in solitude—or doing nothing but online classes and zoom visits—is pretty disruptive to what is already a rocky road for kids in the best of times. One of the children in our family has social anxiety— manageable before the pandemic, but a real issue post-Covid. Suddenly there’s other kids, classrooms, presentations, social events— as they say these days, it’s a lot. I’m sure my kid isn’t the only one with a lot of anxiety about returning to in-person classrooms after a year of relative solitude.
Back to School Nutrition
So how does nutrition fit into this picture?
It’s very simple, actually. It’s all about foundations. In fact, paying attention to nutritional fundamentals is the family version of your government spending money on infrastructure. Whether you’re managing a country, a company, or your child’s health, everything works better and runs smoother when you take care of the basics.
A wonderful diet—high in healthy fat, clean protein, moderate to low in carbohydrates (especially sugar and starch)—plus a smartly chosen set of nutritional supplements may not prevent social anxiety or even cure it. But the absence of those things will make it worse. In fact, study after study after study (1,2,3,4) has shown significant nutritional deficiencies—especially (but not limited to) omega-3s—associated with a whole host of behavioral and psychological problems in children, such as anxiety, depression, acting out, delinquency, ADHD, and many others.
When asked by parents what I recommend they do to support their kids as they return to in-classroom learning, I like to focus on what I call foundational nutrients.
These are basic nutrients, the absence of which will cause or aggravate every condition you don’t want your child to have and will worsen undesirable situations you.
Magnesium—for instance—is involved in 300+ biochemical reactions, not to mention essential for relaxation, healthy blood pressure, and stress reduction. Giving your child magnesium won’t make them immune to stress—but if they don’t have enough magnesium (which most kids don’t), they’re almost certain to be more vulnerable to it.
Best Supplements for Kids
There are four nutritional supplements I consider foundational: Omega-3, magnesium, vitamin D, and a multiple vitamin. (This assumes the multiple-vitamin you take contains good doses of selenium and magnesium, as well as a full complement of the B-vitamins.)
I am a huge fan of the Barlean’s family of Omega-3 products, and I’ve yet to meet a kid of any age who won’t take them in the Seriously Delicious, emulsified form. Ditto for the emulsified vitamin D. For magnesium, I recommend any good magnesium supplement from a reliable manufacturer, but magnesium comes in many forms and they’re not all equally absorbable. Look for magnesium chelate, magnesium glycinate or magnesium citrate and avoid magnesium carbonate (which is what’s found in Tums).
But there are also nutrients that are not edible. As the great nutritionist Robert Crayhon used to say, “Pleasure is a nutrient”. So is happiness. Or sunshine, air, warmth, and security. Friendship is a nutrient as is the feeling of being loved and of loving—animals included, by the way.
Your child is going into a situation they’ve never been in before—returning to school after a national crisis and a year-long disruption in routine, learning and community. You’ll need to be there to support them in every way, something every parent wants to do (even though not all of us always do it as well as we’d like to). You’ll probably want to pay special attention to their sleeping habits as well.
Supporting them with healthy meals, Omega-3, magnesium, vitamin D and a multiple—while making sure they get plenty of fresh air, sunshine, and sleep—may not solve every problem your child is likely to face.
But doing those things is almost guaranteed to make them more balanced and centered—and that alone will make them more resilient, and better able to face the challenges that they’re sure to face this fall.