Eating to Learn

Food for growing children cannot be limited to being called just a source of energy. Because as much as energy is important for your child’s constant activities, the right food nutrients also help in the development of her many organs; perhaps most importantly the brain.

Food for the Brain
School children are constantly observing, memorizing and gaining knowledge. This is why their brain needs food that enhances mental capabilities, increases concentration power, tunes the sensory skills, lessens stress, increase reflexes and magnifies their memory. In fact it has been known that, of all the things consumed by people, the brain eats up around a quarter of that food. If your child just loves to eat junk food, keep in mind where many of the unwanted fats and harmful chemicals are getting stored.

Diet and Performance in School
A staggering number of American children are becoming victims of poor eating habits. Many researchers have found that even a lack of one essential nutrient can lead to chemical abnormalities and bodily malfunctions in children. Not getting enough of the right nutrients can put your child at risk for:

A unique experiment conducted in schools on mice has become a popular way of teaching children about the ill effects of junk food. In this experiment, one group of mice is fed the food kids are used to eating while the other is given a nutritious diet. The results always bring to light the same surprising fact. The mice fed a diet of junk food begin to behave violently, destroying their cage, becoming nocturnal and continuously fighting with each other. When this group is fed a nutritious diet, they start behaving normally in a few weeks time.

Though the experiment may not directly relate to the effects of junk food on humans, it does send a clear message as to just how junk food can alter the way your body operates.

Good Food for the Brain
One important thing to remember about food is that no particular nutrient is totally good or totally bad. It is actually the form in which you receive the nutrient that makes the difference. Considering this, foods that may be beneficial for the brain are:

Carbohydrates: When your body receives a steady supply of carbohydrates, the brain utilizes around 20% of this supply. If the carbohydrate supply tends to vary, with the body receiving more at some times and less at others, the brains ability to learn can become erratic. Sugar found in candies, syrups, and bakery items are highly refined and bad for your child’s mental health because they provide a sudden large dose of carbohydrates to the brain. This supply is exhausted equally fast, leaving the brain feeling deprived.

To help your child’s brain stay focused and sharp, opt for good carbohydrates instead. These carbs are known as complex carbohydrates and refer to foods that take longer to digest. Because of the slower digestion process, brain cells get the steady supply of energy that they need. This type of carbohydrate may also be referred to as having a low gylcemic index. Examples of the good carbohydrates include fruit, whole grain products, oatmeal, milk, and legumes.

    Proteins: Proteins help make the neurotransmitters in the brain. These neurotransmitters act like messengers inside the brain, transferring information from one cell to another; if they stay healthy, so does the brain. There are essentially two types of proteins that affect the neurotransmitters: the stimulants, like tyrosine, that help make the brain alert and the calming ones, like tryptophan. If both are available in the right quantity, your child will have a brain that’s alert as well as perfectly behaved.

    The ratio of complex carbohydrates and proteins along with tyrosine and tryptophan in your child’s diet will influence whether he will feel calm or active. Choosing alert proteins during breakfast and calm proteins when it’s time for bed make your child’s brain tune more in with his activities. Some of these combination foods are:

    • High protein, low carbohydrate, high tyrosine (alert) – seafood, meat, egg, and dairy products.
    • Low protein, high carbohydrate, high tryptophan (calming) – chocolate, pastries, nuts and seeds.

    Fats: Despite what we are told time and time again, not all fats are bad for you or your child. Human beings need brain-building fats like omega 3 fatty acids more than any other kind of fat. Lacking omega 3 fatty acids can often prove detrimental to mental health and may impact upon your child’s performance in school.

    One of the biggest problems with American diets is that, while you may consume a lot of "bad" saturated, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats, good fats like Omega 3 are completely ignored. When children eat the harmful fats, they do not feel like eating the useful ones. For your child’s brain, the best fats come from fish and flax, which are rich in omega 3s, particularly DHA (docosahexanoic acid), a type of omega3 that is essential to building brain tissue. Coldwater fish like salmon and sardines, fish oil, as well as flaxseed oil and soy oil are good omega 3 and DHA sources.

    Vitamins: Every vitamin plays a vital role in brain health. Vitamin C is used to make neurotransmitters. Vitamin B12 (found in meat, fish, eggs and poultry) is required for myelin, which is the covering of the nerve tissues, while less of vitamin B6 may cause tiredness and a folic acid deficiency can cause depression.

    Another important nutrient is choline, which boosts memory and alertness in young children. This vitamin is found in egg yolks, beef liver, soybeans, cabbage, cauliflower and peanuts.

    Minerals: Iron, calcium, and magnesium are important minerals needed by growing brains. While iron, found in meat, beans, spinach, broccoli, and other dark green, leafy vegetables, increases concentration power, calcium from dairy products helps the brain grow and makes children calmer. Magnesium rich foods, like bananas, green vegetables, apricots, meat, and beans, have been found to increase mental function.

    Fiber: Fiber may not directly influence brain function but it can help other nutrients reach the brain more efficiently. So include lots of raw vegetables and whole grain products in your child’s diet.

Positive Steps Taken by Schools
With the rising cases of obesity, lack of concentration and violence among children, schools across the US have woken up to the issue of healthy eating and have made prolific changes to the meals served in schools. The government backed National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has also helped change the dietary guidelines in schools.

According to the NSLP, school lunches should provide one third of the nutritional daily intake for children, of which less than 30% of calories should come from fats. The NSLP provides per meal cash imbursements to schools, which are used to serve these meals. Some schools also provide free meals to their students. This program has proven so popular that the NSLP reports having more than 29.5 million children participating in their program from 2004 to 2005. More than 98,800 schools and residential childcare institutions that year adopted the program guidelines.

Because of it’s success, many schools have observed how the NSLP has helped raise the nutritional intake of children. In fact, some schools that are not officially part of the program have chosen to change their meal guidelines to conform more to those set out by the NSLP. These schools have achieved this by minimizing the use of sugar, salt and fats in their food preparation as well as including up to two servings of fruits and vegetables everyday.

What You Can Do
As parents, it is simple to choose brainy foods for your child just by including fruits, cereals, vegetables, dairy products, and fish in their meals everyday. If you have concerns about the food your child receives at school, make an appointment with the head of meal services to discuss your concerns.