I have been a child and adolescent psychologist for more than three decades and there is no doubt that things are not going swimmingly in terms of young people’s mental health. The statistics reveal an epidemic of eating disorders, depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal ideation which is compromising the health and wellbeing of this generation.
Childhood and adolescence are periods of swift development that are vitally important to developing a sound underpinning for good physical and psychological health later in life. Sadly, almost all the research demonstrates that members of the population I care about most are failing to meet many of the professional recommendations, especially when we examine their diet.
In the ‘lucky country’, fewer than 5 per cent of teenagers consume the suggested daily amount of fruit and vegetables, and a 2016 study by the Australian Psychological Society found that one in five Australian adolescents consumed soft drinks almost every day or more.1 With a diet that’s commonly high in fat, high in sugar and nutrient poor, it’s hardly a surprise that the latest figures reveal that one in four Australian young people are overweight or obese. This ghastly gastronomic situation is backed up by research from Sydney University, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, which found especially bad habits in children and adolescents – with a staggering 76 per cent of teenagers exceeding the guidelines for daily sugar intake.2 Yet despite all the public health campaigns and dietary warnings, during the past two decades there’s been basically no reduction in the nation’s consumption of sugar.
And while these trends have us headed for the number one spot in the world obesity Olympics, the research is clear that they’re impacting on child and adolescent mental health as well. A few years ago, I met Professor Felice Jacka from the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University, who was studying the relationship between what young people were putting in their mouths and their psychology. I was instantly converted by her scientific rigour and convincing data. Dr Jacka’s team has subsequently demonstrated that eating junk foods does indeed increase the likelihood of psychological problems and can also impact on parts of the brain associated with memory and learning.3 Through her cutting-edge work she has taught me and a generation of psychologists that we need to encourage our clients to adopt a good-quality, healthy diet with plenty of nuts, fruits and vegetables – and that doing so can truly be protective of mental health.
I have long believed that parents need to fight over things that matter: sex, drugs, sleep, curfews, internet use, exercise and, of course, diet. These are issues that relate directly to the wellbeing of our offspring. When I raise the topic of food with my clients, I usually get an eye roll so big that they are in danger of detaching a retina. They are expecting a finger-wagging lecture on the food pyramid and the dangers inherent in a diet of cheap, fast food. And while those dangers are indeed undeniable, Flip and I have written this book not to preach or pass judgement, but to provide parents with a wealth of recipes and ideas for swapping processed snacks and sugary drinks with alternatives that are packed with nourishment, to help tip the balance towards a healthier diet. We’ve chosen to focus on snacks because they’re a key and often overlooked part of kids’ food routines. These mini meals are important for maintaining blood sugar levels – with benefits for mood and concentration – but are often where our children reach for sugar or junk food when they could be boosting their nutrition instead. The ‘smart snacks’ you’ll find in the following pages are easy to make, good for mind and body, and – most of all – delicious!
Remember, childhood and the teen years are where many lifetime routines are established. So, if this book can help a generation of Australian families to build healthy lifestyles, and start to educate young people on nutrition, food and cooking, it will arguably be a game changer in adolescent mental health.