Smart Food for Smart Brains

by Deity on May 16, 2006

By Stephanie Kimlicko, MA, CN

Most parents know that what their children eat affects how they look and feel. What they may not be aware of is that food also has an impact on how their children think. Malnutrition may be due to a low intake of calories or essential nutrients and/or to an excessive intake of anti-nutrients. It has been shown by numerous studies to impair mental capacities.

For a child’s brain to function properly, it needs to be nourished regularly. Skipping breakfast or waiting too long between meals are major causes of hypoglycemia, a sudden drop of blood sugar that leads to fatigue, poor memory and an inability to focus. On the other hand, eating a high sugar breakfast also can lead to blood sugar imbalances.

Hypoglycemia can be avoided by providing your child with regular meals and snacks that are rich in fiber and protein. This will help balance the blood sugar. If your child is not hungry early in the morning, offer a low sugar, fruit based smoothie containing protein or half a slice of toast topped with natural nut butter, and pack a mid-morning snack.

Protein foods are essential not only for their role in glucose metabolism, but also because they provide the amino acids needed to synthesize neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that make mental processes possible. In addition, protein foods are the best source of iron and zinc, two nutrients that play a major role in brain function.

Fat is another brain building nutrient. Considering that 60% of the brain is made up of fats, fat-free or extremely low-fat diets may seriously impair brain function. Choosing the right kind of fat, on the other hand, is crucial for optimal brain function. Frequent intakes of DHA (in fatty fish and fish oil) and omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to enhance learning capacity and academic performance while improving behavior and reducing hyperactivity.

Balancing protein and fat with complex carbohydrates (ie vegetables, fruit and whole grains) will ensure that your child also receives an adequate supply of magnesium, a mind-calming nutrient, and B-vitamins that are needed for energy production. To ensure the transport of all these nutrients into our child’s brain cells, also remember to give him 4-6 cups of water each day.

The ability to focus, memorize and process information is dependent not only on eating the right foods, but also on avoiding the wrong ones. Sugar contributes to nutrient deficiencies by filling little tummies with empty calories. In addition, a high intake of sugar has been linked to behavioral problems, mood disorders and chronic fatigue. Food additives are also known to detrimentally affect behavior and generate allergic reactions, including lethargy, mental sluggishness, and/or headaches, all of which can impair academic performance.

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