Learning how food can affect the brain will help you make conscious and more deliberate choices about how you feed a child’s brain.
Oily fish such as wild Alaskan salmon
So, fish is always number one on my list and critical for brain development. Why, you may ask? Because one of the singularly most important omega-3 fats present in the brain is docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, which can be obtained by eating fish and seafood.
DHA is vital
DHA is vital for communication throughout the brain and, this brain- essential nutrient helps speed up cell signalling, resulting in faster communication across our brain networks. Without adequate daily intakes of DHA the chemical messaging process has been described as less efficient and slower.
When we eat a portion of oily fish, such as Wild Alaskan salmon, not only do we receive plenty of omega-3’s but also an abundance of vitamins and minerals which help ensure they are absorbed. Omega-3’s are bioactive compounds essential for neurodevelopment, brain structure and function. They are also key for the production of the pleasure hormone – dopamine needed to regulate mood and motivation. Clinical trial data has reported that lower levels of omega-3 are linked to poorer scores in cognitive tests, sleep disturbances, ADHD-related behaviour and mood disorders including depression. Research by the University of Oxford found that a sample of UK schoolchildren had a mean (average) omega-3 index of just 2.4% falling in the sup-optimal category.
The best way to check if you have adequate and recommended intakes of omega-3 is a simple finger prick test. When you know your omega-3 index you can make adjustments to improve your score and brain health! If you would like an omega-3 index test for your family, do reach out to me via my nutritious_minds Instagram page and I can provide further information as well as a discount code.
Try switching white potatoes for sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes provide 400% of our daily intake of Vitamin A and also contain more Vitamin C; have fewer calories, more fiber and fewer carbs. In fact, they are a complex carbohydrate that can help stabilise blood sugar levels and keep kids full for longer. Sweet potatoes contain a wide range of vitamins (A, B & C) minerals (potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese) and antioxidants. Collectively these are thought to have health benefits for vision; immune system function; blood cells, blood pressure, metabolism, nerves and bone health.
Page 241 of my book has a delicious, child-friendly recipe that you can try at home and which incorporates both fish and sweet potato: homemade fish burgers with shoestring sweet potato fries, portobello mushroom and carrot slaw.
Organic bone broth/soup
Bone broths are very nourishing and commonly recommended to treat leaky gut syndrome which is a condition often observed in children & adults with Autism, ADHD and other learning or behaviour differences. Leaky gut syndrome is also associated with symptoms of fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating, nutritional insufficiencies and bloating. Essentially this condition is thought to impair the guts ability to absorb nutrients which then can impact the ability to make feel-good chemicals such as serotonin which are critical for behaviour and mood. You can read all about gut health and how it impacts children’s behaviour and mood on page 51 of my new book.
Bone broth is immune-boosting and can help overcome food intolerances and allergies as well as help with joint pain. It is rich in glutamine, glycine, collagen and proline and the mineral content helps the body to absorb calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. It makes a nourishing warm drink and can also be used as a stock for soups or casseroles. The organic bones of the broth contain collagen which is a protein containing amino acids that is thought to help rebuild connective tissue, seal and help heal the protective lining of the gastrointestinal tract to help the absorption of nutrients from the diet.
• 1 whole free-range, organic chicken or organic beef joint
• 3-4 carrots
• 2 celery sticks
• 1 large onion (red or white)
• 3-4 cloves of garlic
• Apple cider vinegar (2-3 tablespoons)
• Cayenne pepper and a medium chilli (for parents if you like some spice)
• Chopped parsley can be added to serve (optional)
1. Place the bones into a deep pot, add the vegetables and 2 tablespoons of organic apple cider vinegar.
2. Fill the soup pot with water about 2 inches from the top and cook on a low heat for about 24 hours. You can also cook this in a slow cooker overnight until the meat falls off the bone.
3. Please note that the fat rises to the top and it is your preference to scoop it off but there are health benefits in the fat so do make sure to leave a little.
Sweet treats without the behaviour meltdowns!
As parents, we are guilty of rewarding children with a plethora of sweet treats. But bribing kids to behave with candy, crisps and other confectionary is potentially setting them up for problematic eating later in life, junk food and sugar addictions and much more. It hampers their learning ability and plays havoc with their mood and cognitive function.
WHY? Because it creates spikes and troughs in blood sugars levels – causing first an almighty high when it hits the brain’s pleasure centres and then a crashing low leaving a child cranky, restless and unable to concentrate. The world expert on sugar and its effects is Professor Robert Lustig, and he has described sugar “as the alcohol of the child”. You can head over to YouTube to find out more about his pioneering work here.
Delicious alternatives to sweet treats
Why not try blueberries or strawberries dipped in dark chocolate instead? Berries are rich in antioxidants – health-promoting compounds found naturally in certain foods which prevent a process called oxidation. Oxidation is a series of chemical reactions caused by free-radicals and toxins entering our body from pollutants that damage and even destroy our DNA and other cells in our body and brain. Over time, exposure to free-radicals can lead to inflammation, accelerated ageing, and are linked to the premature development of disease.
Dark chocolate also contains phytonutrients called flavonoids, which are plant chemicals that act as antioxidants and may play a protective role against the development of diseases. Several studies have found that dark chocolate enhances cognitive functioning as well as activates the pleasure and reward system in our brains which in turn decreases stress and improves mood. Try switching milk chocolate, which is often high in sugar, salt, saturated fat, thickening agents, excess calories, milk solids and artificial flavours and let dark chocolate and berries satisfy your sweet cravings with the added benefit of nutrients and fiber. There are many more child-friendly, naturally sweet treat options in the recipe section of Smart Foods for ADHD and Brain Health.
Blueberries, strawberries and raspberries are naturally juicy and sweet. Blueberries are especially nutrient-loaded, low in calories with 1 cup (approximately 148 g) providing: 3.6 grams of fiber, 3.6 grams of Vitamin C, as well as Vitamin K and Manganese. Blueberries are also rich in antioxidant polyphenols called anthocyanins which have a range of health-promoting benefits.
Raspberries also contain antioxidant polyphenols called ellagitannins, which can help reduce oxidative stress. Strawberries are rich in Vitamin C, contain manganese, folate (vitamin B9) and potassium. Collectively berries are considered heart-healthy, are linked to mental alertness, may help prevent diabetes and lower high blood pressure as well as improve skin.
Pro- and prebiotics
The scientific field of psychobiotics is concerned with the Gut-Brain connection and in particular associative links between food and mood. Gut microbiota plays a critical role in the function and management of the central nervous system, neuroendocrine system and neuroimmune system. Following the discovery of the Vagus nerve, scientists found that neurotransmitters such as serotonin (our happy hormone) are made in the gut and transported directly to the brain. Therefore, our gut health is integral to brain health and critically our well-being.
Excess intake of junk, refined, processed foods as well as elevated intake of antibiotics can cause disturbances to gut health-promoting the overgrowth of unhealthy gut microbiome. Brain development is associated with early gut development shaping what is commonly known to as “the gut-brain axis. There are several factors that can contribute to the growth of unhealthy gut microbiota such as premature birth, low birth weight, C section delivery, high antibiotic use, exposure to pesticides and air pollution. GI problems and unhealthy gut microbiota can result in unhealthy food cravings to sugar and salt-rich foods and refined carbohydrates. Consider supplementing your child with pre- and probiotics to maintain a healthy gut.
Which foods contain probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria often present in fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha as well as in powdered or capsule form from health food stores. Prebiotics are a unique form of dietary fibre which act as a fertiliser to nourish the healthy bacteria living in your intestines. Rich sources of prebiotics include green leafy vegetables, apples, leeks, flaxseed & citrus fruit. Several studies have reported improved gut health following the elimination of gluten and cow’s milk switching instead to plant-based alternatives such as flax, almond or coconut.
Soluble fiber is key for gut health. High fiber foods are naturally rich in prebiotics and contain inulin – a plant-based key source of fiber (e.g., Fennel root, beans (limas), onions, leeks, garlic, bananas, beets, broccoli, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes). Prebiotics are quite simply food for the gut!
One for the parents, consider starting your day with a blended juice
Juicing is a great way to start your day and boost your brain. Here are some of my favourite fruit and vegetable combinations, do be experimental to find out what works for you. Start by selecting your favourite fruit and veggies using a 60% vegetable to 40% fruit ratio and give it a go!
Here are some examples for you to consider.
- Beets are an excellent source of folic acid, iron, folate, manganese, potassium, Vitamins A & C and antioxidants. They have health benefits linked to lower blood pressure, can help kidney problems, and are cardio protective (the nitrates can widen arteries in the heart) and the folic acid is great for pregnant mums. Beets can help prevent sugar cravings and relieve fatigue.
- Tomatoes are also considered cardio protective. They are rich in antioxidants including lycopene which is protective against disease and are rich in Vitamin B6, A, C & K, potassium, magnesium, thiamine, copper and folate. Tomatoes are linked to lower blood pressure, improved skin, are kidney protective, detoxifying, can help improve blood circulation and help in the reversal of Type 2 diabetes. Vitamin A is also powerful antioxidant and can help vision.
- Kale (Cavolo Nero) is my favourite and packed full of antioxidants. It is rich in Vitamins: A, C, K, contains fibre, calcium, manganese, copper, fibre, iron, and lutein. It is linked to prevention against certain types of diseases due to its antioxidant content including lutein, is energy boosting, helps respiratory problems, eyesight, bone health and is great for detoxing your liver. Kale is extremely low in calories – 1 cup = 36 approx. calories.
- Spinach is rich in zinc, niacin, protein, iron, fibre, Vitamins A, C, E and K, thiamine, B6, manganese, copper, potassium, folate, calcium, iron and phosphorus. Spinach is thought to help restore energy levels and contains high levels of chlorophyll and carotenoids which have anti-inflammatory and arguably anti-cancerous properties. Spinach is also thought to be beneficial to eye health, is thought to help reverse anaemia, is low in calories and linked to increased blood flow in the brain helping focus and concentration.
- Carrots have so many health benefits! Of course, they are most commonly associated with seeing in the dark! Not just an old wives tale – this is because they contain vitamin A and beta-carotene which are thought to be beneficial for eye health. Carrots are also linked to increased energy, improved skin, they are considered to be heart-healthy, immune-enhancing and importantly brain-boosting! Arguably, the best time to drink carrot juice is in the morning when your stomach is empty, and your body is still cleansing from fasting overnight. It’s also ideal to drink it within 20 minutes of juicing it. Add a little fresh turmeric, paprika and cayenne pepper if you enjoy a little spice.
Simply chop up and then place your preferred combination into a NutriBullet and blend! Add 1-2 cups of filtered or mineral water.
My new book: Smart Foods for ADHD and Brain Health teaches parents how to feed their children critical nutrients which are supportive of their cognitive function, can help improve mood and keep their concentration, attention and focus collectively in check! It also teaches parents which foods to include, in other words, those that help versus those which can hinder.
The back of the book contains a wealth of recipes for all the family with awesome contributions from Tom Kerridge and Rick Stein, as well as a sizeable child-friendly section.
Article by Dr. Rachel V. Gow, Nutritional Neuroscientist, Registered Nutritionist, Child Neuropsychologist and Author of: Smart Foods for ADHD and Brain Heath
If you are interested in the role of nutrition in brain health you can order Dr. Rachel V. Gow’s new book here.
Her social media links also contain a wealth of information, research and support for parents, professionals and individuals alike:
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