Nutrition in a Nutshell: Energize the Brain

You have heard over and over that you are what you eat. With that in mind, what are you feeding your children? As they grow, many changes are taking place in their bodies. You want them to be healthy, energetic, happy and able to focus in school. Do your children often feel stressed, confused, and tired in the middle of class? They may just be overtired and could probably use a few more hours of sleep, but their energy slump may be a result of what they are eating. What we feed our children has a profound influence on how they grow, learn and concentrate. Eating a balanced diet, doing regular exercise and getting adequate sleep are the best ways you can help your children’s overall health.

Many children start their day on empty as they rush out without time for breakfast. Others start off with a sugar rush. They eat sugar cereal for breakfast or grab a glass of chocolate milk. We then expect them to concentrate in school despite the sugar rush and resulting crash! Without fuel, their energy levels are low. If they began their day with sugar on an empty stomach, their blood glucose levels spike. However, shortly after, the sugar high wears off because their serotonin levels go up, and that leaves them feeling sluggish.

What are good things to eat that will have a positive impact on your children’s learning?

In a recent study, it was found that there is a well-established relationship between iron deficiency and poor cognitive development, restlessness and behavioral problems in children. Make sure your child is getting enough iron. Many children are anemic, so they need to eat iron rich foods. Anemic or not, make sure your children are getting heme (animal) sources of iron. They can have a spinach omelet on a whole-wheat wrap or take chicken or a burger in a sandwich for lunch. Leafy greens are another good source of the mineral, and adding fruit, which supplies vitamin C, enhances iron absorption. You can make a spinach salad with craisins, mango, fresh oranges or pomegranate seeds.

A study published in the journal, Neuron, found that zinc aids communication between neurons in the brain’s learning and memory center. It also helps regulate several brain neurotransmitters that are essential for focus. You can give your children pumpkin seeds to snack on, or try mixing them into a homemade granola bar, adding them to yogurt, or using them as a topping on a salad. Other sources of zinc include beans, nuts, chicken, whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, and dairy products.

Are your children eating enough complex carbohydrates? Many adults offer their children salad for lunch, similar to what they would take, and their children are not getting enough high quality complex carbohydrates. This often leads the children to be hungry and snack on high sugar snacks. Carbohydrates are important because after they are in the body, they get converted to glucose, the brain’s preferred source of fuel. This provides them with energy, helps their brain focus and leaves them satisfied so they are getting a better source of calories. Instead of eliminating their breads, focus on giving your children good quality, high fiber carbohydrates and cut out the high sugar carbohydrates that supply empty calories.

A very easy to prepare, nutrient rich food that you can add to your child’s menu is eggs. They are a great protein source loaded with choline, which helps memory development. You can make hard-boiled eggs at night, and in the morning add them to a sandwich with sliced avocado and salad.

Last but not least, if you want to improve your children’s focus, you need to make sure that they are drinking enough water. Every single function of the body depends on water, so it is critically important that your children get enough of it.

A few changes to your children’s menu will help regulate their energy and mood, which significantly affects their health, memory, focus and concentration.

Magnesium has a calming effect on the central nervous system, improving focus and concentration. Magnesium deficiency is very common and dramatically under-diagnosed because it doesn’t show up on a blood test. The reason is because only 1% of the magnesium in the body is stored in your blood; the majority of it is stored in the bones. Foods that are rich in magnesium include green leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds, yogurt or kefir, almonds, black beans, avocado, figs, dark chocolate, and bananas. A whole grain sandwich with avocados and beans with some spinach and dressing would be an incredible fuel filled meal. If you present the food in an appealing way and make it interesting, your children may develop a more sophisticated palate and a huge upgrade in their nutritional status.

Kids often crave sweets. Try offering them a traditional snack such as a bag of pretzels with a sweet fruit. Fruits taste great and are loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. For example, studies show that blueberries boost concentration and memory for up to five hours. This occurs because the antioxidants found in blueberries stimulate the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. Fruits will boost your children’s energy, mood, and provide a low calorie snack.

Fatty fish like salmon are an excellent source of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, both essential for brain growth, function, focus and being in a good mood. Many studies have found that people who get more of these fatty acids in their diet have sharper minds and do better at mental skills tests. Prepare a salmon sandwich for lunch or cube leftover salmon from dinner into a salad with craisins, spinach and carrots, topped with a light dressing. Try salmon tacos or prepare a salmon and avocado whole-wheat wrap.