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Dr. Maria Hatara explores the connection between the gut and children's mental health

Researchers are investigating the connection between gut health and mental health. Dr. Maria Hatara, a gastroenterologist with Tampa General Hospital's Gastro Group of the Palm Beaches, answered questions about the connection and children.

  • What's a healthy diet for children?

"Nutrition for kids is very important — not only for mental health, but also for overall health. It is based on the same principles as nutrition for adults: A good balance of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein and fat.

I recommend consuming healthy proteins like seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans, peas and unsalted nuts and seeds. Encourage children to eat a variety of fresh fruit and avoid juices with added sugar. Also, serve a variety of fresh vegetables. Limit refined grains, including white bread, pasta and rice, and instead choose whole grains such as whole wheat bread, oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa or brown or wild rice. Children can also consume at least one to two daily servings of milk, yogurt and cheese."

  • For parents of children with anxiety, mood or other brain-gut related issues, what dietary changes should they consider making?

"Some children can have intolerance to dairy products, a gluten sensitivity or even celiac disease. Digestive issues can certainly exacerbate anxiety. If this is happening, follow an elimination diet, avoiding dairy and gluten. In addition, limit added sugars. Avoid sugary drinks like soda and sports and energy drinks. Also, limit saturated fats (red meat, fried foods) and sodium (chips, cookies). Talk to your pediatrician to determine if further testing for your child is needed. Probiotics, as a supplement for gut health, are also a good addition to a healthy diet."