We all know now that nutritious food builds strong bodies. But did you know that we need brain food too?
Our brains take up only 2% of our body weight yet consume nearly 20% of our body’s energy. That’s why what we feed our brains is so important. Eating “brain food” improves kids’ moods, elevates learning and concentration, and sharpens memory and attention.
The foods we feed our kids impact their brains in three ways:
- The brain’s cellular structure
- The wiring of neural circuits
- Production of myelin
Glucose (sugar) is the brain’s fuel. If your child’s brain doesn’t have a steady supply of glucose, her energy and attention will drop. Most teachers can tell instantly which of their students haven’t had breakfast for this very reason.
Not all sugars are created equal. Refined and simple sugars (the kind that are in donuts, cookies, candy etc..) give the brain a quick sugar jolt – a quick spike in energy that is generally followed by a big drop. Children’s brains need to be powerful throughout the day, not just after a trip to the vending machine.
The bottom line: Choose complex carbohydrates like whole grains, nuts, fruits and veggies to ensure your child’s brain has a steady supply of glucose all day long.
Kids’ brains need proteins to build new neural connections. The body breaks down proteins into its building blocks: amino acids. The brain then uses these to create new neural pathways. Kids brains are growing like crazy and need extra protein to build healthy connections.
The bottom line: Choose eggs, meat, fish and dairy products along with plant sources of protein like beans, legumes, and soy to give your child’s brain the protein kick it needs.
Low fat, high fat, no fat, reduced fat. What’s up with fats? Many of us in the U.S. have an antagonistic relationship with fats to say the least.
The brain is one place where (the good kind of) fats can be decidedly celebrated. In fact, over 60% of the brain is composed of fat. Every brain cell has an outer membrane (myelin) composed of fatty acids. Healthy fats make those membranes pliable and so that neurons are better able to “communicate” with one another.
Similar to sugars, not all fats are created equal. Saturated and trans fats (mostly in processed foods, sweets etc..) will actually stiffen the membranes and make it more difficult for the cells to function well. The brain does best when we feed it good fats.
Luckily for babies, breast milk is the best source of these good fats! That’s why the AAP advises new moms to breastfeed their babies for at least six months when possible.
The bottom line: Choose brain healthy fats like fish, avocados, seeds, nuts, and dairy products for your kids.
Rounding out our kids plates
In addition to sugars, proteins and fats we need to make sure that kids get the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants their brains need to thrive. A long list of vitamins and minerals are essential for memory, cell production, myelination, and getting enough oxygen to the brain.
Luckily a child who eats a lot of brain food in a well balanced and diverse diet is likely to get the vitamins and minerals he or she needs. Talk to your pediatrician if you have more questions about multivitamins.
The bottom line: Round out your kids’ diets with a ‘rainbow’ of foods like berries, vegetables including healthy portions of the green leafy variety, nuts, oils, and fish.
Brain toxic diets
Unfortunately, the mainstream U.S. diet is brain toxic – chalk full of sugary, fatty foods that don’t do much for our brains. There is almost no good brain food in many favorites like french fries, chicken nuggets, and mac n’ cheese. Lots of kids foods are laced with simple sugars, disguised with names like saccharose to dextrin.
It isn’t just about individual choice or habits either, too many families and kids live in communities where it isn’t easy to find (or afford) fresh fruits and vegetables. This isn’t fair to these kids bodies or their brains.
So what should I feed my kids?
Some parents are really excited to learn about how different foods help or hinder brain function. Other parents just want to know what to put on their grocery list or what to include on the school board agenda for school lunches.
The food itself:
- Plan ahead. Foods on the go are less likely to be brain healthy. Make sure you have fruits, veggies, and whole grains on hand.
- Buy frozen fruits or veggies when you need convenience.
- Puree veggies and put them in sauces, soups and other meals.
- Cut back on processed, prepackaged foods.
- Give your kids water or a small glass of 100% fruit juice instead of sport drinks, juice, or soda.
- Choose a rainbow. Mix the colors. Try something new!
- Feed your kids breakfast or make sure they are getting a nutritious breakfast at school.
- Keep trying. Introduce foods to picky eaters again a couple of weeks later.
Improving your family’s “food life:”
- Model healthy eating.
- Make small changes. You don’t need to change the entire family’s diet all at once.
- Try not to set up a pattern where you use food as a reward or as a way to make your kids feel better.
- Talk to your kids about why brain food is important.
- Start a garden. Get your kids connected to a community or school-based garden.
- Raise cooks. Involve your kids in meal planning, cooking, and, of course, doing dishes!
- Avoid food wars and becoming the “food police.” Encourage healthy eating but don’t be afraid to find middle ground.
- Enjoy meals together. This isn’t just a time to feed kids brains, it is also a time to connect.
- Be food and body positive. This is about taking care of healthy bodies, not avoiding getting fat. There is nothing wrong with occasional treats.
- As your kids get older, talk to them about food advocacy and food access! This is a great way to get teens engaged in food politics and nutrition.