Did you know that foods and proper nutrition are critical to normal brain development in early childhood and are linked to academic performance? Research has shown links between breakfast consumption and better academic performance, but it has also shown a negative correlation between the overall poor quality of a child’s diet and academic performance (1). What this suggests is that children whose diets lack fruits, vegetables, proteins, whole grains and healthy fats may be lacking the important nutrients that are essential to brain development, cognitive function, behavior and inevitably, good grades.
Here are my top 5 brain-boosting nutrients to support our children’s short and long-term brain function throughout their academic life. Click the play button to watch my segment on CTV Morning Live Calgary, and make sure to read my article below for all the valuable information!
The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress, but a diet rich in antioxidants can protect it from this damage because antioxidants have been proven to reduce inflammation, cellular stress and improve communication between brain cells. Kids love to eat in color, but did you know that bright colored fruits and vegetables are also a tell-tale sign that they are rich in antioxidants? Antioxidants are found naturally in food, but particularly in deep, dark and bright-colored fruits and vegetables. In fact, blue and purple colored foods are known to help enhance memory.
Current fruit and vegetable intake in children is less than ideal, most don’t even consume the recommended 5 servings a day, and this includes both fresh or frozen produce. In fact, frozen fruits and vegetables are nutritionally equivalent, if not better than fresh because they are picked at their peak ripeness when they are most nutrient dense. Just read the ingredient list and make sure there are no unwanted ingredients, like added sugar or sodium.
One of the best ways to get kids to eat more of anything is by involving them in the process: the planning, the shopping, the preparing and the making of the meal or dish. Also, make sure fruits and vegetables are always available, cut them up ahead of time for their snacks and lunches, and add some or even sneak them in wherever you can. I am all for sneaking them into a soup, pasta sauce, muffin or cake recipe, or even pureeing a mixture fruits and vegetables into a delicious puree or smoothie! Finally, offering a healthy dip as an accompaniment is always a winner: sliced fruit with yogurt or some nut or seed butter, cut up veggies with hummus or salsa.
Antioxidants can also be found in whole grains, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), nuts, seeds, herbs and spices.
2. Healthy Fats
Our brain is 60% made up of fat, so it is no surprise that healthy fats such as omega 3 fats are vital for brain health. Omega 3 fats help build and repair brain cells, but also have anti-inflammatory effects. A 2017 study (2) found that individuals with higher levels of omega 3 fats had better blood flow in the brain, better cognition or thinking abilities. While other studies have linked omega 3 fats in helping manage behavioral problems, improved reading ability and memory function.
Eating foods rich in omega 3 fats clearly may boost brain function and oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies and tuna are excellent sources of omega 3 fats. They make a great filling for a pita bread or tortilla wrap, they can be turned into fishcakes or burgers, or mixed into a tomato sauce and served on pasta! Of course, not every kid is like my Trinity and loves a variety of fish (but I do still struggle with some like all us parents). I need to make sure I hide the anchovy bottles properly in the refrigerator or else they would disappear at record speed. Fish is not an easy food to get kids to love, I get that, my number one tip is you should introduce fish as early as possible and often to help your child develop a taste and liking for it. Tuna is usually a crowd favorite, just make sure to get light tuna which has a lower mercury content than white or yellow tuna.
One of the no fail ways to get my daughter to eat healthy sources of fish, which is also a great solution for school lunches especially on days we are in a rush or at a loss for ideas, is the Rio Mare Insalatissime light tuna salads which are imported from Italy but can be found in all major grocery chains. They come in 4 delicious recipes: Corn & Light Tuna , Couscous & Light Tuna , Beans & Light Tuna and Mexican Style Light Tuna. They contain high quality light tuna, select legumes and vegetables. Grab a tuna salad, add a fruit and yogurt and you have a hassle-free, healthy meal ready in seconds! When we are the go, I always grab one and throw it in my purse, just in case!
The brain uses roughly 20% of our daily calories and mainly in the form of carbohydrates, in fact only in a situation of starvation or deprivation will the brain use another source of energy as fuel. Thinking, learning and memorizing are all dependent on glucose (the broken-down form of digested carbohydrates). I am not saying that consuming high sugared beverages and foods all day is the way to go, quite the contrary because high blood sugar levels have been linked to impaired memory and cognitive deficiencies (3).
Much like in the case of luxury cars, our brain works best when it gets premium fuel, more specifically complex carbohydrates: whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Complex or high fiber carbohydrates take longer to digest than refined or processed carbohydrates thus providing a steadier source of energy to the brain which is ideal. That fiber also feeds our good gut bacteria, and a recent study has linked a healthy microbiome to long lasting effects on learning and cognition (4). Furthermore, high fiber foods are more satiating, and when our kid’s bellies are full, their minds are free to concentrate and learn.
In between meals, to keep those blood sugar levels stable we also need to prioritize healthy, nutrient dense snacks that are low in sugar, high in fiber and contain maybe some protein and other beneficial nutrients, unless we make everything from scratch these are hard to find. Since we all need a break, I wanted to find you a bar that has most of these top nutrients and the Healthy Crunch Granola Bars may be top contender: they are low in sugar, high in fiber, contain some protein and gut healthy probiotics, plus they are allergen-, peanut- and tree nut-free and School-Approved®. And each bar provides one serving of fruits and vegetables!
Protein is incredibly important because when combined with other foods it helps ensure their energy is released more slowly and blood sugar levels are maintained more stable. We have seen above why this slow and steady release is so important: our child’s concentration levels are improved, as well as thinking, learning and memorizing. Protein-rich foods (lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds, legumes, etc.) often also contain vitamins and minerals, which are important for various brain functions like the growth, repair and development of the cells. With 90% of a child’s brain developing from birth to 5 years of age, it's safe to say that protein-rich foods play an important role in their diet.
Because we mostly are familiar with how to use and add lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products to our kid’s diets, and nuts are not school-approved, I wanted to focus mainly on seeds and legumes. Roasted chickpeas or pumpkin seeds are great for snacks, beans can be sprinkled on salads or lentils added to some tomato pasta sauce for a healthy boost of protein, you can even simplify meal prep by using legume pasta with your tomato sauce!
With nuts being off limits in schools we tend to forget about nuts and seeds altogether, but they are a great source of healthy fats and protein. Healthy Crunch Seed Butters are also School-Approved® (free of major allergens and made in a gluten-, peanut- and tree-nut free facility), and equally important for our kid’s brain health, they are low in sugar and high in fiber!
5. Water & Other Liquids
Proper hydration is important for all body functions and is critical for delivering oxygen and nutrients to the brain for optimal function. A child’s brain is almost 70% made up of water, when it is properly hydrated, the exchange of all these brain boosting nutrients will be more efficient, as will their concentration and mental alertness.
Kids need lots of fluids throughout the day in order also to combat headaches and fatigue. Sugary drinks, even those labeled made from 100% real fruits and vegetables, are not adding any actual fruit to your kid’s lunchbox! What they are adding is essentially extra sugar and empty calories and can impair memory and learning skills. Water would be the beverage of choice. I like to squeeze in the juice of half a lemon or orange for an extra boost of vitamin C especially during cold and flu season.
Milk or plant-based beverages are also great choices because they provide the water our brain needs, but also other important nutrients like vitamins, minerals and brain-boosting protein. For school lunches, nuts not being allowed, oat and hemp milks would be the school-approved choices and that is perfect because they both are also a very good source of fiber, while hemp milk also offers healthy plant-based omega 3 fats! When choosing plant-based milks you want to look for a clean and short ingredient list, with no added gums or emulsifiers, a low sugar content and a higher nut and grain content.
I personally love Elmhurst 1925 Plant-Based Milks because not only do they have a diverse collection of plant-based milks, including unsweetened, single-serve, barista-style, creamers and flavored, but they all contain at most 6 ingredients, no added gums or emulsifiers, and offer up to 4 times more nuts per serving than other leading nut milk brands. They are also non-GMO project verified. I prefer the unsweetened varieties, but most kids may be a little pickier. If we are to replace their sugar-packed juices, chocolate milks or other flavored beverages with a healthier and better alternative, Elmhurst 1925 offers a few interesting options. Their flavored oat milks contain 60 to 75% less sugar than the usual flavored milk beverages and come in 4 flavors! They are also lunchbox and allergen friendly options. All the single serve oat milk varieties have 30 g of whole grains per serving, 3 g of fiber, low in saturated fat and are made with oats grown in Canada. (**If you live in Calgary you can find these at Safeway, for my Quebec followers most major grocery stores have them.)
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*This post is in collaboration with Rio Mare, Healthy Crunch and Elmhurst 1925. All opinions, tips and information are my own.