Kids are off to a new school year and each year requires more and more brain power. Every evening, I ask my kids what they ate that day so I can get an idea of what type of fuel they used to power out their day. My first interest in nutrition came from my energy high’s and low’s in high school back in the 1980’s. Why did I feel so tired in the morning and then have a short-lived super energy surge after lunch? I still remember my driver’s ed teacher – angry-at-the-world Coach Vitek – who would slam his textbook down next to anyone who fell asleep in his class. After my mega lunch, I would have Coach Vitek for 5th period and it was pure torture staying awake after my blood sugar crash from the amount of junk food I consumed. I would sit there in the dark watching 1950’s driving videos with my fingers acting as toothpicks to hold my eyelids open. I am still traumatized by that scenario! It was so hard to stay awake. It's a wonder how I passed Coach V's class that year!
I now know that skipping breakfast and then eating a mega meal at lunch didn’t do me any favors academically. As parents of young children, we’re usually good at making sure our little ones have breakfast before heading to school. But are we maximizing their choices for brain performance?
Nutrients for the Brain
B Vitamins. Thiamin, riboflavin, folate , niacin, B6 and B12 are all critical vitamins during times of stress. Believe it or not, our kids experience stress when it comes to the pressures of learning new – and sometimes – frustrating concepts. The more nutrients their body gets, the easier they can manage stress. Many of the B vitamins are found in fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. But B12 is only found in foods that come from an animal – dairy, eggs, meat, fish and poultry.
Protein. No, we don’t need to put our kids on a high protein diet. However, many children don’t typically get enough protein at breakfast - which should range from 7-14 grams. Protein is made up of amino acids, which make up neurotransmitters to help the brain function correctly. Also, a good protein food source at breakfast such as Greek yogurt, lean ham or an egg are good additions to boost concentration abilities at the start of school and into lunch.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids. A specific omega-3 fat (docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA) found in marine life are utilized by the brain, retina and heart. Our body cannot make DHA on its own, so we must get it through our diet. Food high in omega-3 DHA include salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout and sardines. Start incorporating these types of fish into your regular family meals and eating fish will come naturally. If your family is vegan, try cooking with seaweed.
Iron. Iron is critical for oxygen transport to the body and brain, which helps with energy and cognitive function. If your kids don’t like clams or tofu (the highest foods in iron), make sure they get regular doses of other sources. Those include iron-fortified cereals and breads, raisins, beans, lean beef and spinach. All non-animal iron sources require vitamin C for absorption. Don’t just think of oranges for your vitamin C. Strawberries and potatoes have more!
Fiber and Water. Fiber helps decrease the rate at which your body digests food; and that helps with energy levels. A steady energy level helps the mind. Look for foods with at least 3 grams of fiber or more per serving. Water helps process the fiber, and also will keep energy levels normal.
Carbohydrates. I still see parents limiting carbohydrates in their home because of the low carbohydrate craze that, frankly, is dying a slow death. Children cannot be on a low carbohydrate diet. They utilize carbohydrates to grow normally, and the brain must have good, quality carbohydrates to function normally. Those include whole grains, fruits, low-fat dairy and starchy veggies.
Timing of Meals and Snacks
It’s non-negotiable. Kids must have breakfast. Make time for it because there is too much research out there that tells you about all the academic benefits associated with a good, solid first meal. Ask your children about their day, and when they have time to eat. If you want them to finish their homework before dinner, make sure they get a good snack before hitting the books. By that time, many kids hadn’t eaten for several hours and this could directly impact their ability to concentrate.
Limit Sometimes Foods
High-fat, sugary and overly processed foods have a tendency to carry little nutrition. Do an inventory of the pantry and fridge from the summer months, and remove most of those sometimes foods. Fill your kitchen with convenient, grab n’ go healthy snacks such as yogurts, low-fat cheeses, washed and ready fruits, veggies with low-fat dips. In almost every situation, they will eat the healthy food if it’s convenient.
Here's to a healthy, and super brain-powered school year!