Children and Nutrition

Back to School Brains

Pencils? Check. Notepads? Check. Textbooks? Check. Brain food? …Uh Oh.

In the back-to-school hustle and bustle it is all too easy to forget the most important tool your child has for learning: the brain. While it might seem like enough to just get that brain into the classroom, without the proper nutrition, a growing child will have trouble focusing, concentrating, comprehending, and retaining information.

From the very beginning of life through adolescence, the human brain is continually developing. During this crucial time, brain cells are created, along with the myelin sheath, a fatty material that covers the nerve endings and helps with nerve conduction. And chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, and the neuropathways they travel along, are continually being formed to relay messages between neurons. While this growth process goes on without much conscious thought, it is very energetically and nutritionally expensive; therefore, children and adolescents need many different nutrients to feed their developing brains.

Building a Healthy Brain: The Right Nutrients

The right nutrients create healthy brains and healthy brains are better able to stay focused, alert, and effectively learn. On the other hand, nearly any nutrient deficiency can impair brain function and development. Considering that only about one-quarter of American children regularly consume the recommended five to seven servings of vegetables a day, it is no wonder that mood and learning disorders are on the rise. Eating a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits provides an array of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants needed to support a growing brain. Encouraging kids to eat fresh vegetables and fruit several times a day is a good start to correcting nutritional imbalances. In addition to supplying growing children with important vitamins and minerals, veggies and fruits provide a host of antioxidants that help protect brain cells from oxidative damage associated with exposure to neurotoxins and free-radicals in the environment. Fresh fruits and veggies are also rich in fiber, which helps maintain healthy blood sugar balance.

Essential fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA, are also crucial for healthy brain development. DHA, required for proper cell membrane function and nerve signal transmission, appears to be especially critical during late fetal development and early infancy, and as a child grows, it continues to be required in the areas of the brain associated with judgment, focus, and the ability to complete tasks.[1]Deficiencies of DHA and EPA have been associated with depression, memory impairment, and ADHD.[2] Cold-water fatty fish, like wild-caught salmon, sardines, mackerel, and halibut, are excellent sources of DHA and EPA. Grass-fed beef and buffalo, wild game, and DHA-rich eggs can also supply some of these essential fatty acids. These foods are also good sources of quality protein, which supplies the body with the amino acids necessary to produce neurotransmitters.

All major neurotransmitters are made from amino acids found in dietary protein. A low-protein diet may lead to inadequate neurotransmitter production, and an insufficient level of neurotransmitters can upset the balance of brain chemistry, resulting in apathy, lethargy, lack of interest, mood swings, aggression, and trouble concentrating. Neurotransmitters are largely responsible for learning and behavior, and how you feed your child’s brain directly affects their production of neurotransmitters.[3]

Keep Them Focused: The Importance of Blood Sugar Balance

“Blood sugar” is the amount of glucose circulating in the blood at any given time. Glucose is the brain’s only source of energy; therefore, it is essential for proper brain function. We often think of blood sugar balance as an adult issue, but maintaining healthy blood sugar levels in children is just as important, especially when it comes to behavior and learning. Too much, or too little glucose can increase brain fog, moodiness, and fatigue. In either extreme, attention, focus, learning, and memory are impaired. When blood sugar is maintained within a healthy range, the brain is clear and moods and energy are steady. Avoiding blood sugar highs and lows, known as a “blood sugar rollercoaster,” improves focus, and in many cases behavior. Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is relatively simple if you keep a few basic rules in mind.

  • Make sure your child starts the day with a quality, nutrient-rich breakfast. Always include quality protein, such as eggs or cottage cheese, and vitamin and mineral-rich fruits and yes, veggies!
  • Teach your child to eat at regular intervals throughout the day. For most children this will be three solid meals and two to three snacks spread throughout the day.
  • Make sure each meal and snack contains some protein from naturally-raised meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and/or organic dairy products; healthy fats from foods like avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, organic butter, olive oil, and coconut oil; and fiber from vegetables and fruits.
  • Avoid, or strictly limit, refined flours, caffeine, and sugar. These foods cause blood sugar to soar and then quickly drop. It is this blood sugar rollercoaster that spells disaster for focus, attention, and mood.

Protect Their Delicate Brains: Artificial Colors, Flavors, and Preservatives

Ensuring that your child eats plenty of vegetables, fruit, quality proteins, and omega-3 fats and keeping their blood sugar balanced is crucial for brain health, but the effect chemicals, toxins, and artificial substances have on a child’s developing brain cannot be ignored. Prepackaged foods, especially those marketed toward children, are notoriously full of artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. These additives have long been suspected to cause, or at least aggravate, hyperactivity.

Pesticide residues on foods are also proving to be damaging to developing brains. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that children with the highest levels of pesticide residues in their bodies were most at risk for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).[4] The most frightening finding of this study was that pesticide compounds turned up in 94 percent of the children tested. Although the study did not determine the exact method of exposure, the National Academy of Sciences estimates dietary exposure–from eating non-organic fruits and vegetables–to be the biggest contributor. Choosing organic foods whenever possible is the best way to protect a child’s delicate brain from potentially harmful pesticide residues.

So while this all sounds great, the real challenge is to get your kids to actually eat healthy foods, right? Consider a few of these suggestions, and remember to be patient and persistent; small steps result in big changes:

  • Take control of the foods that are kept in the house; get rid of the junk foods and have healthy snacks on hand instead.
  • Get the kids involved with choosing recipes and foods; giving them a choice empowers them.
  • Be adventuresome in your exploration of healthy foods; try new vegetables cooked different ways and have fun trying new recipes.
  • Finally, start with yourself–studies have shown that the biggest influence on children’s eating habits come not from peers or TV, but from parents.

Be a role model for healthy eating and your kids are likely to follow suit, which is good for every brain!

Back To School Brains – Breakfast and Lunch Box Ideas

When making breakfast, or packing lunch for your child, think simple, natural foods. Avoid pre-packaged foods in favor of real foods that will nourish your child’s brain. Use leftovers whenever possible to make your job easier, or consider some of the fun suggestions below.

Vegetable Quiche with Hash Brown Crust

Serves 6

This is a great make-ahead dish that is easy to reheat for a quick breakfast through the week.

  • 8oz. bag frozen hash browns, thawed and drained
  • 3 large eggs
  • ½ cup half-and-half
  • ½ cup milk
  • ¼ cup diced red pepper
  • ¼ cup diced onion
  • ¼ cup chopped broccoli
  • 2-3 slices turkey bacon, cooked and chopped

Preheat oven to 450°. Spread defrosted hash browns in bottom and up sides of a buttered pie or quiche dish. Pat hash browns with a paper towel to remove excess moisture. Bake at 450° until potatoes are golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and lower the temperature to 350°.

While crust bakes, whisk eggs, half-and-half, and milk together. Add veggies and bacon, stirring to incorporate. Pour into potato crust and bake uncovered for 30 minutes at 350°. Cool for 10 minutes before serving. Serve with a fresh fruit salad.

Quinoa Breakfast Porridge

Serves 2-3

  • 2 cups cooked quinoa
  • 1 cup milk (or substitute almond, rice, or coconut milk)
  • ½ cup raisins
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup shredded coconut
  • 1 medium apple, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped or slivered almonds
  • Raw, unfiltered honey, to serve (optional)

In a medium saucepan, combine cooked quinoa with milk and heat over medium heat, bringing just to a simmer. Add raisins and cinnamon, cover and reduce heat to simmer for about 5 to 10 minutes, until the quinoa is heated through and the milk is starting to be absorbed. Stir in the rest of the ingredients and serve with honey on the side. For a complete breakfast, serve with your favorite sausage or scrambled eggs on the side.

Kebobs

Eating food off a skewer is always more fun! Simply slide the ingredients onto skewers, alternating ingredients as you go. Pack the dipping sauce in a separate container.

Pizza Kebobs

  • Italian sausage, cooked, cooled, and sliced into 1/2” pieces
  • Mozzarella, cubed
  • Grape tomatoes
  • Olives
  • Small button mushrooms
  • Small container of marinara sauce for dipping

Turkey Sandwich Kebobs

  • Turkey Breast, cubed
  • Cheddar cheese, cubed
  • Red Pepper, cut into 1” chunks
  • Cucumber, sliced into 1/2” rounds

Ranch dressing (Combine 1 cup buttermilk; 3 tablespoons sour cream or mayonnaise; 1   teaspoon lemon juice; ¾ teaspoon garlic powder; 1 tablespoon minced chives; pepper to taste.)

Waldorf Chicken Kebobs

  • Chicken breast, cubed
  • Grapes
  • Celery, cut into 1” chunks

Yogurt dipping sauce (Combine ½ cup plain yogurt; 1 teaspoon lemon juice; 1 teaspoon honey; ½ teaspoon cinnamon.)

Pinwheel Rolls

  • Lightly spread a piece of nitrate-free deli meat with hummus or cream cheese. Sprinkle with shredded carrots. Place 1-2 slices of red pepper at one end of the lunch meat and roll up. Slice into smaller pieces or leave whole.
  • Spread a whole grain tortilla with a layer of hummus. Fill with veggies of your choice (shredded lettuce, carrots, cabbage, sprouts, cucumbers, avocados, olives, etc.) and sprinkle with feta cheese. Roll the tortilla up tightly and then slice into thick rolls. Secure with a toothpick.
  • Spread a whole grain tortilla with a layer of your child’s favorite nut butter.; sprinkle with a bit of cinnamon. Lay a medium-sized banana at one end of the tortilla and roll tortilla around banana. Slice into smaller pieces or leave whole.

References

[1]  Is Your Child’s Brain Starving by Dr. Michael R. Lyon

[2] NGVC Fish Oils Customer Literature File

[3] Stop A.D.D. Naturally by Billie J. Sahley, PhD, CNC

[4] Bouchard MF, et al. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and urinary metabolites of organophosphate pesticides. Pediatrics. 2010 Jun;125(6):e1270-7.