Children often need more than a new set of books to achieve their full potential at school. Nutrition expert Christine Bailey says if you want them to perform well, it’s time to take a look at their diet…
Feeding your kids the right foods can not only improve mood and behaviour but have a profound effect on their ability to focus, concentrate and think clearly. Research has clearly shown us how nutrition and learning go hand in hand. Certain foods enhance brain function, memory, concentration and motor skills and children who eat the right foods are more focused with better moods and improved energy for school work. A brain and body that’s tired or lacking in the key nutrients won’t help your child perform at their best.
With a weight of 1.3kg/3lb our brains are one of our heaviest organs, demanding the most oxygen and glucose, and using about 30 per cent of the body’s glucose to function. While it’s glucose that energizes brain cells – that doesn’t mean a diet full of sugary drinks and sweets is what our brains need. What your brain actually requires is a slow and steady supply – that means slow-releasing carbohydrates with sufficient protein and healthy fats. This is why breakfast is so important for children. Studies show that children who skip breakfast are more sluggish, are less attentive and have less energy for morning activities compared with classmates who eat breakfast. But skip the sugary breakfast cereals or toast and jam. Choose brain boosting options such as eggs, oats, yogurt, berries and nuts and seeds instead. Younger children in particular often have variable appetites so they may need regular snacks to keep the brain fuelled. Eating a snack between meals maintains a steady stream of glucose to the brain. Glucose also enhances the production acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that allows neurons to transmit memory messages. To prevent that brain drain mid-morning or afternoon, pack a healthy snack such as oat cakes with cheese, vegetable sticks and hummus, nuts and seeds or a small pot of fruit. Don’t forget to encourage them to drink plenty of water! The body needs water to keep the body and brain hydrated and to transport nutrients to the brain. Not drinking enough water can lead to dehydration and even mild cases can make kids sluggish and irritable in the classroom.
Include these top ten brain foods to supercharged your child’s brain power.
Eggs are one of best brain foods for your child. Rich in protein, which are the building blocks to create our neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) plus essential nutrients for optimal brain function including iron, B vitamins and zinc. Eggs are also a rich source of brain-boosting choline, which helps enhance memory. Choline is used to transmit nerve impulses and maintain healthy brain cell membranes. Other good sources of choline include peanuts, soybeans and peas.
Full Fat Yogurt and Kefir
Probiotic rich foods like yogurt and kefir are a must for a healthy brain. Packed with beneficial bacteria researchers have found probiotics can help boost mood and reduce anxiety.
Seeds like sunflower and pumpkin seeds are packed with healthy fats, protein and vitamin E. This vitamin’s potent antioxidant effects protect brain cells from damage and inflammation. Try toasting seeds with a little soy sauce for a healthy snack.
Sub-optimal levels of iron can can impair concentration and memory in children. Iron is needed to transport oxygen to brain cells. It’s also used to make neurotransmitters that affect our ability to recall information and motivate us to learn. Good food sources include red meat, beans and lentils, leafy greens and tofu.
Ditch the sugary cereals and switch to slow releasing oats instead. Packed with fibre and a good source of protein to help balance blood sugar levels to keep your child focused through the morning. Oats are also a good source of the amino acid tryptophan which the body converts to mood boosting serotonin.
Chicken and turkey are protein packed foods rich in tryptophan, which the body uses to make serotonin – our feel good neurotransmitter. Lean poultry also contains another amino acid called tyrosine, which can help boost motivation by improving levels of dopamine too.
Avocados are another fabulous brain power food. Packed with tyrosine, the amino acid that helps the body produce dopamine which helps increase feelings of reward, motivation and overall mood. Try adding them to smoothies, mashing them up and spreading onto wholegrain toast or using them in dips.
Berries are loaded with antioxidants including anthocyanidins, known to boost brain function and promote brain and nervous system health. Berries are also low in sugar and calories and packed with fibre to help balance blood sugar and energy levels.
Leafy greens may not be top of the list in terms of your child’s favourite foods but they are packed with vital nutrients to enable the brain to perform well. Folate and other B vitamins in particular are essential co-factor nutrients for our brain to create our brain chemicals that affect focus and concentration. They also contain plenty of magnesium to calm the mind and help tackle stress.
Wild-caught salmon is one of the best foods for both mood and brain power. Packed with omega 3 fats which help optimize brain function and production of neurotransmitters helping your child to think quickly and clearly. The more omega-3s we can get to the brain, the better it will function and the better children will be able to focus. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish, in particular DHA, are essential for brain growth and function. Our brain is 60 per cent fat and these omega 3 fats make up a large portion of the communicating membranes of the brain. Try including oily fish 2-3 times a week. Good options include salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, herring and kippers.
Christine Bailey is the author of The Brain Boost Diet Plan: 4 weeks to optimise your mood, memory and brain health for life. An award-winning, degree-qualified nutritional therapist and chef she appears regularly on TV and recently was the nutritional expert behind CBBC’s Operation Ouch Mental Health Special Programme, released in November.