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"A sugary cereal bomb for breakfast gives children tremendous anxiety that plummets in class"


María Luisa Ferrerós explains to what extent diet influences irritability or lack of attention in school and encourages setting a parental example at home

The paediatric psychologist Mª Luisa Ferrerós.
The paediatric psychologist Mª Luisa Ferrerós.

If we wouldn't put gasoline in a diesel engine because we want it to work and last many kilometers, why do we introduce ultra-processed foods into our bodies that barely give us energy but rev us up like a motorcycle only to leave us stranded? The problem affecting adults is even more serious when it comes to children, warns child psychologist María Luisa Ferrerós, a prolific author at Ed. Planeta who has just published Portada "Dime qué come y te diré cómo se porta" in collaboration with Dr. Victoria Revilla. "During the growth stage, a poor diet affects them much more. They are still under construction and their brain and intestines are not yet matured," she explains.

Many teachers are concerned because day after day, children bring industrial bakery and concentrated juices to snack time instead of nutrient-rich foods. "We all have a lot of stress and little time, so the easy thing is to pack the bag with cookies. It's a struggle because society is already geared towards children preferring and opting for unhealthy choices. That's why it's important for schools to promote, as a game, those good nutrition basics," she says.

She gives the example of fruit week or whole wheat bread week, all done in a very playful way. "It's a task of involvement at home, at school, and from institutions and the government." It is necessary to start educating as a team from a young age, she insists, because "the palate quickly becomes accustomed to the exaggerated taste of sugar in ultra-processed foods."


And even worse is when the example is not set. "Children seek what they see at home." More than 58% of Spaniards are still unaware of what foods and beverages are ultra-processed, according to a study by the Fruit Juice Science Centre (FJSC). Dietitian-nutritionist Ramón de Cangas considers the data alarming, as the lack of correct nutritional information contributes to poor food choices that have a negative impact on health.

"There is a lot of confusion about what is healthy," continues the psychologist. People think that a vegan burger in a very green package is better and it is highly manipulated in the lab and full of additives, she exemplifies. "Many times we label eating habits and lack of sleep as disorders. If kids don't eat balanced meals and don't sleep well, children become hyperactive, irritable, easily angered, have a bad mood, disruptive behaviors..."

In the medical history, for the past 20 years, it includes meal times, how rest is, "The first thing to do is go to the physiological base. This is not something I say, it goes back to Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. If you are not well-nourished and have not slept, you will not learn or socialize well. The body is a precision clock, and a toxic intestine causes the rest of the body to malfunction. As the Greeks already explained: a healthy mind in a healthy body," Ferrerós quotes.


Another battle for parents is giving candies if they pass or taking away dessert if they misbehave. "Food can never be associated with rewards and punishments because you establish a toxic relationship in which you no longer eat out of hunger but for the pleasure it brings," she criticizes.

Children are not naive and they already realize that food has an emotional value, she details. "So, the blackmail begins, and if they don't get what they want, they stop eating. Since you won't let your child go hungry, their power over the parent is enormous." The consequences of these associations are terrible, she says. "We are seeing that disorders related to self-perception and body image distortion (Eating Disorders) start much earlier, now reaching 10 years old, and also in boys and not just girls."

We cannot separate food from the energy it provides to the body to stay healthy, she insists. "Children are children, of course, but we set the limits. I have many examples of celiac or diabetic children who know perfectly well what they can and cannot eat, and the danger it poses, because it has been explained to them and they are not stupid. And with sugar binges, the same must be done, they need to know why their stomach hurts. They have to learn what their food triggers are."

Parents focus on lunch and dinner, but not so much on breakfast or snacks, which they neglect more, according to the psychologist's experience. "A sugary cereal bomb for breakfast gives them tremendous anxiety that plummets in class and makes them unbearable and difficult to manage. It has been proven that breakfasts combining protein and fat make them much more stable." She gives two better options: a French omelet with a bit of tomato bread, a piece of cheese, and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil or a bowl with Greek yogurt, assorted chopped fruits, and nuts or almonds.

"Many children have concentration problems due to magnesium deficiency and probably are not eating enough nuts, fish..." What do we do if they can't stand vegetables? "You should never force or prohibit because you can create such an aversion that they won't eat them even as adults. If you prohibit foods in childhood, they will binge behind your back when you're not looking." In fact, she mentions having patients who are 21 years old and developed binge eating disorder due to so many dietary restrictions. "The therapy is not with them, it's with their mother so she understands that their mind has turned it into a desire and that doesn't work."

Instead of serving a plate of chard that they don't like due to imposition, she advises involving children in the kitchen, using different colors, disguising it in creams, or even mashing broccoli with salmon to turn it into a burger that they find more appealing. "And eat the same as them. In the book, we explain many healthy recipes so it's not a torture."

The summer disorder affects them. "The change in schedules and routines in summer tremendously affects their anxiety and bad mood," warns the psychologist about vacations where ice creams and soft drinks consumed without control pervert their habits. Also, we use mobile phones even in restaurants so that children don't bother others, especially adults. "Screens are used as babysitters; if we have to go out to eat, let's make sure there is a playground," she advocates

We also cannot expect them to behave well throughout the entire social gathering. "A three-year-old cannot endure a two-hour meal with adults, everything in its own time. Until they are seven years old, meals cannot last three hours. We have to involve them, help them, and talk, that's why the no screens rule should work for us too. If the child is not aware of what they are doing, they will get up, run around, and ten minutes later say they are hungry again."

Each child has a genetic character, but it develops as they experience a lifestyle. "A slightly nervous child will have much higher anxiety if they have to wait a long time to eat, they are hungry all day, eat poorly... It's not the same as a calm child where there won't be noticeable changes. But she advocates for good sleep hygiene and a balanced diet, understood as the menu and never restriction. "There are studies from Harvard comparing the performance of children who sleep enough hours, and the evidence is significant in their grades. And the same goes for their plate."