Giving Kids a Nutritional Edge with Brain Foods

The information on this page has been compiled and edited from previously published articles, by Dr. Connie Guttersen.  The articles are not intended as health advice, nor do they necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the California Olive Committee. Always consult your physician on matters of health and wellness.

by Connie Guttersen, RD PhD.

Studies, such as those cited on this page,  have documented that undernourishment impacts the behavior of children, their school performance, and their ability to concentrate and perform complex tasks.

A child's learning ability and behavior greatly depends on what nutrients the brain uses as fuel. Across the spectrum of mildly disruptive behaviors, such as concentration and mood difficulties, to the clinical diagnosis of attention deficit or autistic disorders, it is possible to categorize the biochemical imbalances, which most often contribute to these disorders. The four main areas include essential fatty acid deficiencies, blood sugar control, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and food allergies.

Balancing Fats for Better Brainpower

Sixty percent of the brain's weight is made up of fat. Choosing the smartest balance of dietary fats is critical for both the growing and aging brain. Two of the most important fatty acids comprising this weight are eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), and docosahexanoic acid (DHA), both omega 3 fatty acids. The EPA and DHA fatty acids are important for proper communication between the neurotransmitters in the brain and are necessary for structural and functional roles in the brain cells. A deficiency in omega 3 fatty acids has been associated with hyperactivity, learning disorders, and behavioral problems. Furthermore, as studies look into ADD and ADHD they find that the brain chemistry related to neurotransmitters function is out of balance and may be related to how fatty acids are metabolized. A recent study involved 117 children between the ages of 5 and 12, all of whom were attending mainstream school found significant improvements in reading, writing and symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, (ADHD) after three months of supplements containing EPA and DHA.

Dietary sources of omega 3 fatty acids include oily fish such as salmon and trout. Plant sources such as flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil also provide the essential fatty acid alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which the body converts to EPA, however, not as efficiently as if it were from the marine source. The conversion, as well as the utilization of omega 3 fatty acids in the brain, is challenged in the presence of high intakes of omega 6 such as corn oil, soybean oil and trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils. The average ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 intake is approximately 15:1, far from the recommended 1-4:1 estimate.

Use of partially hydrogenated fats and trans fat compromises the delicate balance necessary for optimal use of omega 3 fatty acids and changes how brain levels of dopamine work as neurotransmitters. Researchers worry that trans fats, like saturated fats, compromise the blood flow in the blood vessels of the brain which is reflected in studies that examine the increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease later in life. The intake of monounsaturated fats, such as from olive oil, avocado, nuts, and canola oil can provide an optimal balance as it does not compete for absorption and utilization of omega 3 fatty acids in the cells. Adequate consumption of omega 3 food sources and the proper balance of fatty acids emphasize the importance of the quality of fat in the diet rather than just the quantity.

Young Minds Need Vitamins and Minerals

There are also key minerals and vitamins, which are important for young minds. Magnesium and zinc are two minerals, which appear to be gaining more attention as their levels become deficient within children who have poor diets. Magnesium deficiency can be associated with low mood, hyperactive behavior, and insomnia. A zinc deficiency is associated with low mood, poor learning skills, and frequent infections which lead to more missed days at school. B vitamins are also important co-factors in many biochemical pathways related to energy levels. Low levels are associated with low mood and energy levels, anxiety, irritability and learning difficulties.

Another prevalent nutritional problem of children in the United States is iron deficiency. This deficiency is characterized by fatigue, shortened attention span, reduced resistance to infection, and impaired learning ability. Consequently, anemic children tend to do poorly on vocabulary, reading and exams. Choline, a nutrient found in eggs and nuts, has a positive effect on brain and memory development. Antioxidants from flavonoids found in blueberries, strawberries and vitamin C rich foods may also provide additional benefits. Studies continue to suggest that the role of antioxidants in preserving brain function and reducing risk associated with oxidation is promising.

There has been much discussion regarding the type of carbohydrate and the amount of sugar children consume each day. It's been estimated that today's American child ingests approximately 50 teaspoons of sugar each day. In addition, many kids are not eating breakfast, eating more processed foods, and not getting enough exercise.

Foods that contain fast releasing carbohydrates, such as  sweets lead to a temporary and excessive hyperglycemia followed by a drop in blood sugar. This can lead to behavioral changes, especially in sugar sensitive children, which could predispose them to learning difficulties. Researchers at Yale University gave 25 healthy children a drink containing the equivalent amount of sugar found in a soda can. As adrenalin levels rose and blood sugar levels fluctuated, most of these healthy children had difficulty concentrating and were irritable.

There is no doubt that children's brains function better with a constant and even supply of nutrient rich foods. Undernourishment impacts the behavior of the children, their school performance, and their ability to concentrate. As health professionals we need to provide easy-to-follow guidelines for brain food tips which school aged children can adopt as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Fueling A Healthy Kid

1. Start the day with a healthy breakfast.
Children who eat breakfast have a general increase in math grades and reading scores, increased attention, reduced nurse visits and improved behaviors. Children who do not eat breakfast pay less attention in the late morning, have a negative attitude towards schoolwork, and retain less in class. Start the day with a Rise and Shine burrito of eggs, whole grain tortilla, olives, and a favorite salsa for a well-balanced start.  Whole grains with peanut or almond butter or eggs are also an easy recommendation. Try whole grain steel cut oats topped with toasted nuts and brown sugar.

2. Eat brain friendly carbohydrates.
Low glycemic foods such as whole grains, beans, and legumes can provide the brain with the necessary nutrients and help keep the blood sugar at a steady control. Fueling children on empty calories from sweets and refined snacks only displaces the opportunity to eat nutrient rich foods.

3. Feed your brain the right fats.
Focus on the essential fatty acids from alpha linolenic, EPA and DHA found in the various sources of omega 3 fats. Keep them in balance with delicious choices of monounsaturated fats from nuts, olive oil, avocados, and canola oil as well as the polyunsaturated sources. Moderate saturated fats from animal fats and tropical oils while eliminating trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils.

4. Stay hydrated with water.
Blood is 80% water. As it flows through the body it eliminates toxins and allows good nutrition to reach different body parts, such as the brain. Proper hydration is critical for concentration and alertness. Moderate or eliminate sugary beverages.

5. Take vitamins and minerals as an insurance.
If children are eating a balanced adequate diet, supplements are not usually necessary. However, in these busy times with hectic eating schedules a child's vitamin and mineral supplement may provide that necessary insurance to ward off any deficiencies. The critical nutrients to consider include vitamin C, B12, B6, Folic Acid, Calcium, iron, and zinc. (But be sure to check with your doctor first.)

6. Serve smart snacks.
Healthy mid-morning and afternoon snacks keep energy levels up. Choose snacks that have a small amount of protein along with whole grains and "good" fats. Snack time may be an optimal time to include a handful of nuts, a small container of black olives, or even crackers with nut butters. Refined sweets or excessive processed foods lack the nutrients to keep kids alert and hunger satisfied.

7. Perk up the brain with protein.
Proteins in the diet provide amino acids from which neurotransmitters can be made. Two of the most important are tryptophan and tyrosine. Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin, which relaxes the brain and tyrosine is the precursor for dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, collectively they are referred to catecholamines. Catecholamines rev up the brain.

8. It is all about balance.
The company these nutrients keep is what makes it all work. The right carbohydrates in balance with protein, colorful fruits and vegetables, and mono and polyunsaturated fats make for a nutrient rich balance that works collectively. Encourage children and parents to apply the themes of balance and moderation to recommended portion sizes for their age groups.


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