What your children eat could determine how well they do in school, how well they pay attention, learn, and even the grades they get. Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness gave us the scoop on how to feed our kids for optimal school performance.
Children of all ages need the same number of servings of foods from each of the four food groups as do adults. The size of the serving increases as we get older. So, for example, a 2 year-old needs the same 5 to 6 servings of grain (preferably whole grain!), but the serving is a half slice instead of a whole slice of bread. Your child also needs lots of vegetables and fruits, or at least 8 servings a day. A typical recommendation when it comes to serving size is 1 tablespoon for each year of life; so, a 4 year-old would need 4 tablespoons of green peas, while an older child or teenager would need 1/2 cup. Children also need 2 to 3 glasses of calcium-rich milk and two servings of low-saturated fat protein, such as fatty fish, also rich in omega-3 DHA. Total calories, on average, should be about 2,000 calories for an active child aged seven to ten.
The link between breakfast and the brain starts with energy. The 100 billion nerve cells and an equal amount of supporting cells in the brain make up only two percent of body weight, but use about 30 percent of the calories a child eats in a day. Those brain cells are fuel fussy, demanding that all of their energy come from carbs or glucose. By the time the alarm sounds, much of the glucose stores and blood sugar levels have been drained to fuel the body throughout the night. Granted, your child probably feels and thinks fine for awhile, because the good night's sleep energizes the body and brain. But underneath that morning pep the brain is running on fumes and your child's thinking will pay for it later. On the other hand, take five minutes for breakfast and a child will think clearer all day. Students who eat breakfast perform better on memory and recall tests compared to students who skip breakfast. Students who eat healthy breakfasts and lunches are more alert throughout the day and do better in school and on tests, according to experts at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. They also show greater attention and visual memory compared to breakfast skippers
If your child is a seasoned breakfast avoider, start eating breakfast, even if they aren't hungry. It will take two to three weeks to reset the appetite clock, after that you should notice a gain in energy and mental power, especially if the meal is light and healthful. So, avoid the sugary cereals and ones filled with refined grains. Those pack on the pounds and undermine thinking. Instead, follow my 1,2,3 Rule for breakfast: 1. A whole grain, 2. A protein, and 3. At least 1 serving of a colorful fruit or veggie.
Omega-3 fats also are important for school performance. While the saturated fats in meat, processed foods, and fatty dairy foods like butter and cheese, clog blood vessels and undermine thinking, the right fats improve cognition.
Your child's brain is very greasy, but in a good way. More than 60% of it is fat. Unlike the lazy fat stored on the hips or belly, fat in the brain is a worker bee. It makes up the cell membranes that surround each cell and the insulation sheath around neurons that allows thoughts to travel fast from one cell to another. The more fluid and flexible those membranes, the faster your child reacts, the more he/she remembers, and the more creative and clever that child is.
That's why the brain loves omega-3 fats. These are the most fluid of all fats. Your child's body can't make them, so is entirely dependent on choosing the grilled salmon not the cheeseburger for lunch. Nerve connections alone increase by almost a third by adding more omega-3s to the diet! An accumulating body of research, including a recent Oxford study, shows that the more omega-3s consumed, the more a child's reading performance, behavior, and working memory improves.
You get the biggest bang for your buck with the omega-3 DHA. You'll get the least results from the omega-3 fat, alpha linolenic acid or ALA, in flax, walnuts, soy, and other plants, which is great for the heart and circulation, and will help lower inflammation, but does nothing for boosting memory or lowering dementia risk. There is up to 30 times more DHA than EPA in tissues, and up to 97% of the omega-3s in the brain are DHA. So, make sure your child gets at least 2 servings a week of fatty fish, such as salmon, or use foods fortified with DHA, or have them take a supplement.
The brain consumes more oxygen than any other body tissue, which exposes it to a huge daily dose of oxygen fragments called free radicals. Free radicals are trouble makers, attacking, damaging, and destroying every brain cell in sight. The wear and tear after decades of free-radical attacks is thought to contribute to the gradual loss of memory and thinking associated with aging. Fortunately, the body has an anti-free radical army comprised of the antioxidant nutrients, including vitamins C and E and beta carotene that deactivate these harmful oxygen fragments. Colorful produce is the very best source of these antioxidants, with not only vitamin C, but also more than 12,000 phytochemicals, most of which are antioxidants. The research overwhelmingly shows that the more color-rich produce you eat, the better you think. Folks who eat the most broccoli, sweet potatoes, spinach, and other deep-colored produce, maintain the highest blood levels of antioxidants. They also score highest on memory tests, exhibit the best judgment and reasoning, maintain a youthful ability to learn new tasks, and react quickly. All you need do is:
Include two fruits and/or vegetables at every meal and one at every snack. Double a serving size of any bright-colored vegetable and you have two servings!
Vitamins B6 and B12 are directly involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. Adolescents who have a borderline level of vitamin B12, develop signs of cognitive changes. In the brain, the nerve endings contain the highest concentrations of the antioxidant vitamin, vitamin C. Vitamin E is actively taken up by the brain and is directly involved in nervous membrane protection. On the days your child doesn't eat perfectly, it's a good idea to give him/her a moderate-dose, broad-range multi.
Iron is a perfect example. If thinking is on a down-hill slide, especially in teenage girls, they could be iron deficient. Young children, teenage girls, and women during the childbearing years - especially those who exercise, menstruate heavily, or consume diets of less than 2,500 calories - are at particular risk for iron deficiency. In fact, iron is the most common nutrient deficiency.
Iron is important for thinking because it is the key oxygen-carrier in the body and the brain. This mineral also is a component of numerous brain enzymes that help regulate brain function. When iron levels decrease, the brain and nerve cells are starved for oxygen, resulting in fatigue, memory loss, poor concentration, lack of motivation, shortened attention span, and reduced work performance.
The first line of defense is to eat more iron-rich foods, including extra-lean red meat, cooked dried beans and peas, dark green leafy vegetables, and dried apricots. Cook in cast-iron pots and the iron will leach out of the pot and into the food, raising the iron content of the meal several fold. Also, drink vitamin C-rich orange juice with iron-rich meals to boost iron absorption.
The first symptom of dehydration is fatigue, including mental fatigue. Thirst is not always the best indicator of a child's fluid needs, so make sure to tuck an extra water bottle into their lunch bag and encourage them to drink water, not soft drinks throughout the day.