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Brain Foods For You and Your Back to School-er

Dr. Natalie Waller, ND Dr. Natalie Waller, ND

As parents we are often challenged to feed our children healthy foods that are parent, school and kid approved. Kids are drawn to the creative marketing of brightly packaged snacks, but the ingredients and poor nutrient profiles leave us parents looking for better options. I am not saying you can never put a packaged product in your child’s lunch box, for many of us this is just not reasonable. Be mindful to ensure nutrient rich foods are also packed in there.

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The brain runs on sugar, yes I said sugar! This does not mean that gummy bears are the food of choice for brain health, but complex carbohydrates from vegetables, whole grains and fruit are. Another perfect food is legumes. They are rich in fibre, complex carbohydrates and contain protein. Sneak them into soups, and past sauces, or serve hummous with veggies for a quick snack. Cauliflower, and broccoli (and most vegetables for that matter) are important brain foods. Cauliflower and broccoli are high in several B-vitamins such as B5, biotin and folic acid, which are all required by the nervous system. Served with cheese sauce or with dips, most kids will not frown on eating these crunchy cruciferous vegetables.

Protein, another macronutrient is essential to help keep you and your child’s mind sharp and focused. Protein is the basic building block for the body. There are thousands of uses for proteins in the body, including muscle formation as well as hormone production, messengers, and memory cells. Good sources of protein include lean meats like bison, white chicken meat, lean beef, eggs and fish. Starting your kids day off with a good source of protein with breakfast will provide them with energy, and help them stay focused through the morning as protein helps avoid the dreaded “sugar crash”. Eggs every morning are not recommended, so good alternatives of protein include protein shakes or smoothies. Nut butters are another good source of protein and healthy fats. Most schools no longer allow the classic peanut butter and jam sandwich, so breakfast at home is a great time to get a dose. My son likes to add a little peanut butter to his oatmeal. With a little helping of maple syrup, his oatmeal ends up tasting more like a peanut butter oatmeal cookie, yummy!

Ideally a small amount of protein should be eaten with each meal. Good protein sources can vary from vegetarian sources to animal sources, and both should be included in the diet. Lean red meat also provides heme iron, which is highly assimilated by the body. Many children are iron deficient and this can cause symptoms such as irritability, low energy, poor concentration, difficulty learning, and restlessness.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s), particularly the Omega 3s EPA and DHA primarily found in fish oil are essential for proper development. Both EPA and DHA have been shown to be important to neurological development and well-being. DHA is an important component of neurological cells and the myelin sheath which helps conduct signals along nerves. DHA is often supplemented into the diets of children with ADHD, hyperactivity, and autism. EPA is very important for decreasing the inflammatory response, which is critical to reducing and/ or avoiding asthma and allergies. EPA has also been shown to help balance moods, which is very important for teenagers dealing with fluctuating hormones. With the current state of our polluted waters it is not recommended to eat more that 2 – 3 servings of fish a week, so a daily supplement is a good idea. Other sources of DHA include eggs, flaxseeds and algae.

There are dozens of other important foods to feed children, but the best advice is to feed children a variety of whole foods. Avoid processed, sugary, fibreless foods and let kids eat real food instead; they will have more sustainable energy, and will have better focus during the school hours. Get your children involved in what they are eating by teaching them about healthy food, letting them pick out foods, and even let them help prepare the food. The earlier good habits are established, the longer they will stay with them.

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