Kids who want to stay focused and alert in school need to eat the right foods. Not power drinks and potato chips, but foods rich in healthy fats, protein and slow-burning carbohydrates that provide energy throughout the day.
“Fats build the brain, proteins unite the brain, and carbohydrates fuel the brain,” says Julia Bryant, Hampton schools nutritionist.
The brain accounts for two percent of our body weight but eats up roughly 20 percent of our daily calories, according to Robin Nixon of LiveScience online. It’s a picky eater and demands a constant supply of glucose — primarily obtained from recently eaten carbohydrates. Nutritionists say the best way to feed the brain is in small doses several times a day.
“Each food has its own component, so it’s a matter of mixing it together,” says Mary Jo Haney, registered dietitian at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters. Her recommendation for a healthy breakfast, for example, combines whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk and topped with blueberries.
Speaking of breakfast, nutritionists call it the most important meal of the day.
“Many studies show that kids who eat breakfast have more concentration and perform better in tests,” says Haney. “My advice for parents is to start giving their kids breakfast when they’re young and keep insisting. And don’t let them eat too much at night before they go to bed.”
Foods with protein and complex carbs, which are digested more slowly, will help kids keep their energy levels stable throughout the morning, says Steven Zeisel, a researcher at Duke University. Kids should also avoid high-sugar foods at breakfast which sets them up for a midmorning energy crash, he says, when they’re likely to be in the middle of more demanding classes like math or reading.
“Breakfast reduces anxiety and improves cognition,” says Bryant. “Cognition helps you absorb information and analyze things critically.”
Hampton schools offer offers a free breakfast to every one of its 20,500 school-age kids. Part of getting kids to eat it, says Bryant, is asking them what they like and finding ways to deliver their choices in a nutritious way.
“We found that Hampton kids won’t eat cheese toast or scrambled eggs, but they’ll eat a breakfast pizza with sausage and cheese,” she says. Other healthy breakfast foods in Hampton include fortified doughnuts, pancake and sausage on a stick, whole-grain cereal and power balls made with whole grains.
The school system also mimics the fast-food egg biscuit with its own version of eggs and low-fat cheese on a fortified roll instead of a calorie-laden biscuit.
“Eggs are so important for brain functioning and neuro -transmission,” says Bryant.
Eggs contain choline, a vitamin-like substance that helps create memory stem cells formed deep in the brain. For kids who won’t eat eggs, try French toast made with whole wheat bread and top with sliced fruit.
Another great breakfast brain food is oatmeal, which contains protein, is high in fiber and digests slowly, giving kids with a steady stream of energy. A Tufts University study found that kids who ate oatmeal performed better on memory tasks.
Researchers also believe strawberries and blueberries, which are high in antioxidants, may boost cognitive functioning. Parents can buy bags of the frozen berries for snacking, or help kids make their own smoothies.
Breakfast brain foods: eggs, oatmeal, whole-grain cereals, low-fat milk and cheeses, fruits such as strawberries and blueberries.
Whole-grain bread is one of the cornerstones of brain food at lunch. Whole wheat breads are high in fiber and rich in folate, a B vitamin that is used to manufacture of memory cells in the brain, according to LiveScience. Whole grains are a good source of other B vitamins that have been shown to improve alertness.
“Make sure they’re getting some type of whole-grain because the only source of energy for the brain is coming out of carbohydrates,” says Bryant. “Whole grains aren’t absorbed by the body as fast.”
Pre-packaged lunch items such as Lunchables are fine, says Bryant, but parents should use caution as these products are high in sodium and fat and have a lot of fillers. “When I was growing up, there weren’t as many convenience foods available,” she says.
For protein, Bryant suggests tuna, peanut butter and beans. Low-fat or fat-free milk is a great source of protein, vitamin D, and phosphorus. Milk also contains calcium, which affects how our bodies regulate energy. And fruit is another great lunch time item, though kids do better when parents cut up the fruit and send it to school in plastic containers.
Many kids in elementary school still pack a lunch, says Bryant, adding, “A small number of kids won’t eat anyone’s food but mama’s food.”
Lunch brain foods: Whole-grain bread, tuna, peanut butter, low-fat milk and cheeses. Bryant also recommends beans and brightly colored fruits.
Fruit, yogurt, nuts and granola-type products all make good snacks, as long as they aren’t high in sugar. Bryant and others also recommend kids drink lots of water. Kids don’t always think to take in a lot of water at school. Dehydration, even a very mild case, will sap energy from the body and make kids lethargic and irritable.
Power drinks are popular among students, but Bryant isn’t recommending them for most kids.
“Power drinks have a lot of electrolytes that we don’t necessarily need,” she says. “They’re very good for athletes, but a normal active youngster doesn’t absolutely have to have them. There’s a lot of sugar in those drinks.”
Snack brain foods: granola and trail mix (low in sugar), power bars (low in sugar), yogurt, fruits, cereal and water.
Supper is one of the best times where children can see adults eating a variety of different brain foods. Nutritionists have discovered that what parents say to and offer kids make little difference; they will eat primarily what you eat.
Lean beef is one of the best absorbed iron sources, and iron deficiency can lead to a decline in cognitive functioning and poor performance in school.
Researchers also believe that the omega-3 fats found in fish, especially oily fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna — are important to early brain development and to maintaining healthy brain function throughout life. Omega-3s are known to help build the outer membrane of brain cells. It is through the fat-rich cell membrane that all nerve signals must pass.
Supper brain foods: Fish, especially tuna and salmon; lean meat, vegetables.
–By David Nicholson, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)