For years, athletes have eaten to win. Is it possible for kids to eat to learn?
You bet, and some kids’ brain food goes straight to the head of the class. Leading nutrition researchers are learning more every day about the power certain foods have on growing bodies. Not only can these nutrition all-stars help build a better brain, but they can also supply school-age children with the focus needed to navigate their time tables, sit still during story time, and still have energy for a fierce game of freeze tag.
Okay, maybe these brain foods aren’t your kids’ favorites—yet. But if you’re willing to be patient and offer them regularly, they soon will be: “With kids, nutrition is all about structure and consistency. Once new foods become predictable, they’ll come around,” says Susan L. Johnson, PhD, director of the Children’s Eating Laboratory at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.
The Best Breakfasts
Breakfast is critical for school-age kids. Research has shown that breakfast-eaters do better academically and have fewer behavior problems than breakfast-skippers. (As many as 37% of American kids routinely blow off this meal, reports the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor University.)
But high-sugar foods set kids up for a midmorning energy crash—right when they’re likely to be in the middle of the more demanding classes, like math or reading. Ideal breakfasts offer protein and complex carbs, which are digested more slowly. Some studies have found that such breakfasts not only keep kids’ energy levels stable all morning, but also improve motor coordination, says Steven Zeisel, MD, a researcher at Duke University.
Eggs Choline (a vitamin-like substance that is plentiful in eggs, but also found in nuts) is vital for the creation of memory stem cells, formed deep within our brains. The more cells we have, the better our memories. It’s a nutrient experts have long recognized as vital for pregnant and lactating women, because so much brain development occurs in infants.
But the big news, according to research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, is that extra choline also seems to help adolescent rodents remember better, too, says Zeisel, indicating that a choline-rich diet may aid new memory cell production throughout childhood. (Because humans and rodents are so similar biologically, researchers reason, comparable results may occur in humans.)
Turn up the appeal Even kids who hate eggs will go for French toast; use whole wheat bread, and top with sliced fruit. (Warning: Because eggs can cause allergic reactions in infants, babies should not be given egg yolks until 8 months, and egg whites until 1 year, according to the USDA.)
More from Prevention: How To Get The Entire Family To Eat Healthy
[pagebreak]Oatmeal Tufts University and Quaker Oats gave kids between ages 9 and 11 a choice of oatmeal, cold cereal, or no breakfast at all, and then tested their memory at school over several weeks. The oatmeal-eaters performed significantly better on spatial-memory tasks (children were tested on map skills). Researchers believe it is because oatmeal—a whole grain that is high in fiber—digests slowly, providing kids with a steady stream of energy, as well as giving them protein.
Turn up the appeal If you’re serving old-fashioned slow-cookoatmeal, sprinkle in raisins, dried apricots, or cranberries to add a little zip; walnuts add crunch. Allow kids to sweeten it themselves with a little brown sugar or maple syrup. When serving packaged varieties, don’t let them add sugar (it’s got enough already) and pick a product that contains 130 calories or less. Varieties such as “maple and brown sugar” can contain up to 190 calories largely due to added sugar.
Strawberries and blueberries These two juicy favorites are ultrahigh in antioxidants. A diet rich in such brain foods (spinach is also in this group, but who are we kidding?) has been shown to boost the cognitive functioning of rats, according to research from Tufts University, and researchers speculate that similar results occur in humans. While the studies are preliminary, researchers are hopeful that fruits and vegetables may play an important role in preventing the long-term effects of oxidative stress on brain function. (In fact, in older people, a diet rich in antioxidants even seems to ward offAlzheimer’s disease.)
Turn up the appeal No tricks required—kids love these plain. Buy bags of the frozen berries for snacking, or help kids make their ownsmoothies.
What kids eat at lunch is critical to how well they maintain their energy through the afternoon. If your child eats a hot lunch in the cafeteria, stop by from time to time to get a good look at the meals, and see what may be missing.
If your child brown-bags it, make sure she helps you select and prepare what goes in. “The more kids buy into what they’re having, the more likely they are to eat it once they’re at school,” says Johnson. And make it substantial: Lunch should provide a third of your child’s calories, vitamins, and minerals. Pack these powerhouse brain foods:
Sandwiches on whole wheat Not only are whole wheat breads rich in fiber, but the enriched flour used by most commercial bakers is rich in folate, a B vitamin that is used to manufacture memory cells in the brain.
Folate has long been on our radar as critical for moms in early pregnancy and for the neural development of their infants, says Zeisel, but it turns out its brain-building effects may continue through the entire pregnancy as the memory center is formed. What’s more, whole grains are a good source of other B vitamins that have also been shown to improve alertness.
“Because so many families are following low-carb diets, they may be skimping on breads, cereals, and orange juice—all of which are terrific sources of folate for children,” Zeisel says.
Turn up the appeal Win over a white-bread eater with peanut butter and extra jelly, or low-fat cheese, on whole wheat bread. Or pack “mini-sandwiches” made on whole wheat crackers or whole wheat tortillas, instead.
Milk Fat-free milk is well known as a great source of protein,vitamin D, and phosphorus. But calcium also affects how our bodies regulate energy, says Naomi Neufeld, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist and author of KidShape: A Practical Prescription for Raising Healthy, Fit Children.
“Calcium plays an important role in the body’s production of insulin,” she says. “Unless there is true lactose intolerance, it should be a nonnegotiable part of your child’s diet.”
Bonus: A diet rich in low-fat dairy seems to protect children fromobesity.
Turn up the appeal To make milk tempting, just add chocolate or strawberry syrup: Experts say there is very little caffeine in chocolate milk, and it contains about the same amount of sugar found in fruit juices. “Just make sure you’re factoring that sugar into your child’s overall eating plan,” says Neufeld, who is also director of KidShape, an antiobesity program in California.
Itty-bitty fruit While most fruits are not brain foods, per se, they do offer children a distinct learning advantage. That’s because constipation is a common problem, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics. As a result, kids often drag through their school day feeling sluggish, lethargic, and in more severe cases, anxious and distracted.
Fruit (along with exercise and plenty of water) is the best way to keep kids regular, and hence ready to learn. But cut up fruit first, and send it to school in plastic containers. “It seems less daunting to them,” says Lorraine Stern, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles and editor of The American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Your Child’s Nutrition. “Whole fruit is just too easy to throw away.”
Turn up the appeal Make fruit fun by serving small pieces with a toothpick, and go for kids’ fiber-rich favorites: oranges, plums, apples, pears, and melons.[pagebreak]
The school day may be over, but kids can’t afford “brain drain” now. To re-charge them for their after-school activities and homework, encourage them to drink water and snack on cereal. Here’s why.
Water Most parents would be amazed at how little water kids take in at school. “Water is an overlooked food,” says Naomi Neufeld, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist and director of the KidShape antiobesity program, “and kids often run around in a state of relative dehydration.”
Dehydration, even a very mild case, makes kids listless, lethargic, and irritable—not exactly the best frame of mind for memorizing the Bill of Rights. What’s more, Neufeld says, “too little water creates false hunger in children, so they make poor food choices.” Offer water at every meal, especially after an active day.
Cereal Even if he had a bowl for breakfast, fortified whole grain cereals are a snack that’s rich in folate, complex carbs, and easy-to-access protein. Fortified cereals are also a great source of vitamin B12, linked to how well we remember things, reports the National Institutes of Health. Instead of serving it plain, try mixing some whole grain cereal with raisins and peanuts.
Superfoods For Supper
Rushed as dinner can be for most families, it’s also critical for “smart” eating. It’s usually the only meal where children get to see adults eating—and enjoying—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.
You can help that process along by involving kids in supper choices whenever possible, says Johnson: “Should we have salmon or chicken? Green beans or peas?” That said, here are foods to include regularly at the dinner table.[pagebreak]
Beef Iron deficiency is the most common type of nutritional shortfall in American children, and the number one nutrition disorder in the world. And poor performance at school could be a symptom. Even a minor deficiency can cause a decline in cognitive functioning, says Mary J. Kretsch, PhD, a researcher at the USDA-ARS Western Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, CA. Primarily, it seems to affect kids’ ability to pay attention.
Lean beef is one of the best absorbed sources of iron there is. The amount of meat consumed matters less than you think. Kretsch says that adding even as little as 1 ounce of beef per day has been shown to make a big difference in the body’s ability to absorb iron from other sources.
An added brain bonus: Beef packs plenty of zinc, and even minor zinc deficiencies have been shown to impair memory.
Turn up the appeal You already know they love burgers and steak. Have them help you make beef kebabs on the grill, or pick out their favorite vegetables to toss into a stir-fry.
The third-string produce team “We know that far more than any one food, variety is what promotes optimal nutrition in kids,” says Johnson. Because parents tend to offer the healthy choices we know will get eaten—let’s say, apples and carrots-we tend to forget there are other foods kids have enjoyed in the past.
Remember celery and nectarines? And how about kidney beans and raspberries? By resisting the urge to revert to their favorites, you boost variety—and nutrition.
Turn up the appeal Turn them loose in the produce aisle. Ask each child to pick out three fruits they like, and three vegetables.