Brain food – how to feed your child’s brain
The evidence is clear that if our children have well fuelled brains, they are more likely to have better mood, behaviour and learning or cognitive ability. These are all things us parents would love to improve in our children, of whatever age, so here are some simple evidence based steps you can take to nourish your children’s brain.
Let’s start with breakfast. Despite evidence that eating a balanced healthy breakfast leads to better concentration, mood and mental performance, however over a third of children and teenagers don’t eat breakfast. Often children say they can’t stomach breakfast, or there isn’t time, but a bit of time management and planning can often solve those issues. Even if It’s just a smoothie, or joining a breakfast club, it will make all the difference. Try and include wholegrain carbohydrates such as wholegrain cereals or toast, dairy or protein and some fruit and/or vegetables.
The ability to concentrate and focus comes from an adequate and constant supply of energy – from blood glucose – to the brain – which uses 20% of all our energy! Eating regularly through the day, and choosing foods that give a steady supply of energy to the brain is key. Choose wholegrain carbohydrates (brown rice and pasta, whole grain breads); pulses (peas, beans and lentils); and a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy (contains the natural sugar lactose). The fibre in these foods helps the slow release of energy.
It’s also important to stay hydrated, as with any part of the body the mind works best when its well hydrated, as it is 78% water. Just a simple dairy based smoothie may make a huge difference to their morning concentration levels. Water and milk are the best sources of hydration, and be aware of caffeine in energy drinks and tea and coffee, teenagers revising for exams may think they are a good idea but often the caffeine (not to mention the sugar!) affects the quality of their sleep, and then their cognitive ability the next day. Regular breaks and exercise are more effective ways to re-energise the brain.
There are also specific nutrients that have proven effects on learning. Low iron levels (particularly for menstruating girls) are associated with poor mood and concentration. Low magnesium levels may be associated with anxiety, low zinc levels with poor attention, and iodine is key for mental development. All fish and shellfish are good ‘brain food’, providing first class protein, iodine and omega 3 oils, but oily fish (e.g. mackerel, salmon, trout, pilchards, tuna, herring, whitebait and sardines) have the highest levels of omega 3, which has a proven effect on concentration levels, so aim to eat it at least twice a week. Antioxidants, which protect the brain from free radical damage are also essential, and are found in nuts, oils, fruits, vegetables and wholegrains.
Lean red meat, pulses, poultry, nuts, green veg, dried apricots, fortified cereals
Seeds, beans, oats, soya products, quinoa
Egg yolk, white fish, all dairy, seaweed
Lean red meat, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, wild rice
Oily fish, chia seeds, flaxseeds, nuts and oils, soya
Food is the best and most absorbable source of all these nutrients, however, if you are concerned that your child is not eating a balanced diet, perhaps they really struggle with vegetables, nuts or oily fish then choose an age-appropriate supplement (children need less than adults) is advisable, and look for omega 3-oil rather than fish liver oil. However, we should all be taking vitamin D this time of year!
This is a huge topic, but these simple tips, should help you provide good brain food for your child, whatever age.
Here are a few simple recipes to get you started
How many of us are being asked this question, in the knowledge that we may have to produce 2 or 3 different meals, at different times, for different tastes. Well I hope the attached recipe will solve that problem for one evening this week. As much as its desirable to all eat together and I would really recommend at least sitting down with children to chat whilst they are eating even if you eat later, its often not logistically possible. Do try and find at least one occasion where you do sit at a table and eat together, with no phones or tablets for company. Perhaps you can then discuss which meals are going to be cooked for the following week, everyone chooses a dish, within reason!
The recipe for socca pancakes can be adapted to whatever you have left over or flavoured in anyway you like. They are pancakes made with gram flour which makes them higher in protein and fibre than normal pancakes and chickpeas are a prebiotic too, i.e. your good bacteria like them. They are low in fat, but a good source of omega 3 fat too.They are also wheat free, now I'm not 'anti' wheat in any way, its a good wholesome grain in its wholegrain form but I think there is a tendency to eat too much of it. Its so easy to eat a wheat based cereal for breakfast or toast, a sandwich for lunch and then good old pasta for supper. I don't think its surprising many peoples guts are becoming intolerant and even allergic to it. However please don't give up good quality wholegrain breads and pastas, but try not to eat it at every meal. Most of the commercially made breads are made using the Chorleywood bread making process in @45 minutes, no time for any yeast to properly let the bread rise. Pinch a piece of your sliced loaf together it sticks, you are eating un-risen dough. Bread machines are great if you don't have time to make your own but my favourite by far is Sourdough bread, it is given a whole for the live culture to work.
So back to the pancakes, flavour the batter however you want, i use turmeric and harissa and fill them with whatever roasted vegetables I can lay hands on and a crumble of feta or some left over chicken. Equally flavour them with five spice and fill them with stirfry and prawns or tofu if its your thing. Enjoy.
I have to confess the term 'clean eating' is one of my biggest bug bears and although the concept is hugely popular, it has also had some bad press from the science community. So before you start a clean eating program do read on.
So what's positive about 'clean eating'?
Anything in my book, that encourages the public to think about their food and pay attention to their nutrition and overall health has to be a good thing. So cooking more at home from scratch, including more vegetables and fruits - so far so good. Health seems to be on many peoples agendas now, and this is really good news. However, its the WAY in which we think about our health that's important.
So what's the problem with 'clean eating'?
The problem is really the title itself. Firstly what on earth does it mean? Often different things to different people. Vegan? Raw food only? Avoidance of processed foods? Only fresh organic foods? There is no definition.
'Clean eating' also suggests that other ways of eating are 'bad' or 'dirty' and that's not the message Public Health Nutritionists and Dieticians are trying to get across. Its not helpful to make people thing that some foods are 'bad' or 'good and it often stirs up negative emotions and in an environment where eating disorders are on the increase, this is not helpful. For example, feeling guilty by eating chocolate or feeling a failure, when in fact, healthy eating is all about context and balance.
If you eat well the majority of the time then have that piece of cake, then you won't feel deprived. I generally think about a balance of 80:20. Restrictive and fad diets have been shown to have the exact opposite impact on a persons health.
As we have heard so much about in the news, health isn't just about the body, its about both physical and mental health and if you are getting stressed with yourself about avoiding certain foods, then that's not healthy either.
Eating well should allow you to have a balance and a healthy relationship with food and your own food choices.
Is 'clean eating' realistic?
Clean eating often sells an unrealistic portrayal of what a healthy lifestyle should be. In the same way we that air-brushed celebrity bodies in magazines which make us feel rather inadequate. The result may be that you feel inadequate and a failure if you don't produce 'clean' meals every day.
So I hope in future to make the recipes on my blog about realistic, delicious, foods that anyone can make and enjoy.
So by all means follow the clean eating bloggers and be inspired by some of their recipes but be realistic about foods and think about the CONTEXT of your eating but Do continue to think about health and ways you can improve your diet.
However to try and avoid feeling guilty or having negative relationships with any types of food.
I'd love any feed back good and bad and also let me know if you'd rather read a blog on sugar or one on helping children enjoying Healthy Eating?