Obesity increases a child’s risk of developing anxiety and depression.  In fact one study in Sweden* found that girls aged 6-17 were 43% more likely to suffer from these conditions and for the boys it was slightly lower but still in this ballpark.

Now this makes sense to us at The Youth Fairy because modern neuroscience underpins the way we work with children in our therapy practice and as it’s childhood obesity week we thought it might be helpful to give parents a few pointers about why this is.

  • Visceral fat (the not so good stuff around our organs) has cortisol receptors (stress/anxiety hormone). So the more visceral fat = the more stress/anxiety.
  • Leptin (tells us when we are full) goes up when we gain weight which means it doesn’t work properly. This means it takes longer to feel like we’ve had enough. This leads to overeating = more visceral fat = more cortisol = more anxiety.
  • The more we eat the less dopamine we produce (reward chemical). So we eat more to try and get that satisfied feeling = more visceral fat = more cortisol = more anxiety.

And just to add the icing on the cake… when we are anxious the brain produces cortisol which actually stimulates hunger! That leads to comfort eating and all the above points too.

Such a vicious cycle!

So what can we do to help?

If we can firstly recognise this vicious cycle then that’s the first step!  Then we can work to find ways to break it and create a new, more positive one.

A really effective way to start breaking this cycle of anxiety, negativity and stress is to start to produce more serotonin and feel good endorphins – which improves our mood and makes us feel happier.

Here are some ideas to help increase your child’s serotonin which will, in turn, help to reduce anxiety, depression and reduce the desire to over-eat or comfort eat.

We introduce all the young people we work with to the value of the 3Ps – Positive Interactions, Positive Actions and Positive Thoughts.  When we engage in these our brain produces a lovely, constant flow of serotonin helping to reduce anxiety and stress and in turn supporting making those healthier choices.

    • Positive Actions – we all know how good exercising is for us. Exercising, particularly outside, creates serotonin – but any exercise counts and it doesn’t have to mean sweating in the gym (thankfully)! Anything that means we are moving more such as walking to and from school, a game of footie with siblings in the back garden, or taking the dog for a walk. Exercise also produces a LOT of dopamine which helps us feel rewarded or motivated – so the more we do the more we will feel like doing over time. Encourage your children to do the activities they find fun – and you get involved too.  In the privacy of their own home (most) children, even teenagers, will enjoy ‘dancing’ around the house to loud music.  Not only are we increasing our serotonin but we are also getting a lovely release of dopamine – this helps to combat the craving for dopamine that we can create through over-eating.
    • Positive thoughts – Youth Fairies encourage children (and parents) to keep a positive diary, noting down 3-5 things every day which have been good in their day. We also also encourage this as a daily activity around the dinner table – rather than sharing the challenges of your day, share the things that have been good. As you make this a regular habit, you will find yourself focusing on, and noticing, more good things, making sure you have a list ready to share with your family.  What a wonderful habit to instil in our children, knowing that we are also helping them to create more serotonin which helps them to be happier and calmer and feel more in control.
    • Positive Interactions – if we’ve learnt anything over lockdown it’s the positive effect of having face to face connections – we all missed this – even the most introverted of us. As discussed in our last blog (The Art of Conversation) it can be hard, especially for our children, to transition back into meeting face to face but we know that these positive interactions are imperative to our mental well-being. They play an important factor in us generating the positive neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps us be happier, calmer individuals and more able to make those better, healthier choices.

By encouraging our children to engage with the 3Ps we are supporting them in breaking the negative cycle of anxiety, reducing that cortisol and helping them to feel more in control of those un-wanted food related behaviours.

In addition – it’s interesting to note that many of the foods that we consider to be healthy are also serotonin boosting.  These foods are made from the building blocks of amino acids (including tyrosine) which are essential in the production of dopamine.  Research has shown that eating fruits with high levels of tyrosine can lead to greater concentration and creativity.

Introducing serotonin boosting foods in their diet such as salmon, nuts and seeds, eggs, tofu, milk and pineapple could also help to increase deep and creative thinking. Adding these foods to breakfast and throughout the day may provide a natural cognitive boost according to a study published in Psychological Research.

*BMC Med 18, 30 (2020)