Food for concentration & cognitive function

The impact of poor nutrition on obesity and associated chronic diseases is well established. However, evidence suggests that the quality of a child’s diet not only has a considerable impact on their weight and long term health – but also their ability cope with the behavioural and academic demands of school or nursery. A well-fed brain is more likely to lead to good behaviour and improved learning outcomes.

Food for the brain

During the first two years of life, a child’s brain develops rapidly. Nutrients play an important role in this development process, acting as energy sources, structural components and precursors to neurotransmitters (the brain’s chemical messengers). Children who don’t receive adequate nourishment during this critical period are therefore at risk of a range of cognitive problems including slower language, lower IQ and poorer academic performance in later childhood.

So which nutrients are particularly important? And where can they be found?

  • Omega 3 fats

4364560% of brain weight is fat, so it’s no surprise that deficiencies in certain fats can have a huge impact on intelligence and behaviour. Most of the connections in the brain are laid down by the age of two, so around 50% of a child’s total calories should come from fat during this period to ensure optimum brain development.

Almost half the fat in the brain is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega 3. DHA helps support the transportation of signals to and from the brain and forms the basis of memory. Studies suggest that children who eat foods rich in DHA therefore display improved recollection skills.

Found in: DHA is not produced by the body in significant amounts, which means it must be obtained through diet or supplementation. The most effective omega 3 fats occur naturally in oily fish such as salmon trout, mackerel, herring and sardines. For those who don’t like fish, flaxseeds and walnuts are also good sources.

  • Zinc

Zinc is important for the hippocampus – a region of the brain linked with learning and memory. Low zinc levels have been linked with fussy eaters and the development of ADHD. In turn, improving zinc levels in children with ADHD has been shown to reduce symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity and impaired socialisation.

Found in: Meats such as lean beef and poultry, dairy products (including yogurt and cheese), nuts, seeds, beans and pulses.

  • Iron

Iron deficiency in 1-2-year-olds has been linked to poor concentration and long-term learning and behaviour problems. Research suggests that around 85% of children with ADHD have low iron levels (compared with just 18% of children without the condition).

Found in: Lean meat, fish and protein-rich meat alternatives (such as eggs, beans, pulses and tofu). It’s also important to provide vitamin C (found in fruits and vegetables) to help aid iron absorption.

  • Magnesiumspinach-dd-02

Magnesium is used to produce the neurotransmitters involved in attention and concentration, and has a calming effect on the brain. Deficiencies amongst children are common.

Found in: Dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains, avocado, yogurt, bananas and dried fruit.

  • Choline

Choline is a nutrient involved in the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is important in the creation of memory stem cells, and therefore helps to boost memory.

Found in: Beans, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, yogurt, tofu, buckwheat and lean beef. Egg yolks are also a great source of choline, but should not be given to children until 8-9 months.

Additional strategies

As well as making an effort to incorporate key nutrients, there are some additional nutritional and lifestyle strategies that can help improve behaviour and support the growing brain:

  • Blood sugar balance

It is important to keep children’s blood sugar levels stable. Too much refined sugar and children can become hyperactive and find it hard to concentrate. In addition, the brains of young children need a regular supply of energy so that they can think effectively. Lengthy gaps between meals can cause blood sugar levels to dip, and may leave children feeling tired, irritable and easily distracted.

Where possible, opt for slow release 1carbohydrates (such as wholegrain bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta and oats) paired with a source of protein (such as meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans and pulses) to help slow down the absorption of sugars from food. Eating little and often (i.e. main meals interspersed with healthy snacks) also helps keep children’s energy and concentration steady.

  • Reduction in junk food

Research suggests that high junk food diets in children can lead to increased hyperactivity levels. In a society dominated by convenience foods, encouraging a shift towards natural, unprocessed whole foods may seem challenging – but will often lead to improved learning outcomes.

A number of synthetic food additives designed to increase shelf life and enhance colour have been linked to hyperactivity in children and should be avoided where possible. These include tartrazine (E102), quinoline yellow (E104), sunset yellow (E110), carmosine (E122), ponceau 4R (E124), allura red (E129) and sodium benzoate (E211).

  • Water

Dehydration adversely affects concentration and mental performance, so it’s important to ensure that children drink plenty throughout the day and that fresh drinking water is always available.

  • ExerciseGame-Card-Glass-Vintage-GraphicsFairy001

As well as a healthy diet, exercise helps to keep brains sharp. Research suggests that regular physical activity improves cognitive function and helps children to process information more effectively.

Providing a nutrient-dense diet doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive. Children need nearly 40 different nutrients and the more varied their diet, the more likely it is that they will get enough of everything they need. Providing small yet frequent meals that includes a wide variety of fresh ingredients (including wholegrains, a good mix of lean meat, fish and vegetarian proteins, plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables and lots of water) is the most effective ways of ensuring that children’s brains are well nourished.

Nutrition for school sports

Nutrition helps provides vital fuel for physical activity, and it’s crucial that active children and adolescents consume well-balanced meals and snacks to help support school sports.

6754603d4ec0cfbeba712814e4d5d373Eating well for physical activity and sport can have many benefits including:

  • Increased energy and improved sporting performance
  • Reduced risk of injury
  • Better recovery after exercise

School-age children (aged 6 to 16) generally need between 1,600 and 3,200 calories a day. Those who consume healthy, well-balanced meals and snacks will get all the nutrients needed to perform well in sports, with no additional calories required. However, the timing of eating and exercising can impact on how children feel and perform during their chosen activity, as well as the balance of macro-nutrients consumed at each stage.

Before exercise

  • If children don’t eat anything at all before taking part in sports, they may lack energy and feel light headed. However, too much food can slow them down and make them feel unwell. It is therefore important to time food consumption right.
  • If children are consuming a full meal before exercise, this should be eaten around 2-3 hours prior to allow for adequate digestion. A small snack can be consumed around 30-60 minutes before exercise to help to top up energy levels.
  • It takes the body approximately four to six hours 20120531-154158-800x533to digest fat, around three hours to digest protein and about two hours to digest carbohydrates. It is therefore important that children focus on consuming mainly easily digestible carbohydrates directly before sports, so the body can focus on fuelling exercising muscles rather than digesting a heavy meal.
  • Making sure children are well hydrated before they start an exercise session is important, so encourage them to drink regularly throughout the day and with their pre-exercise meal. A sports drink is OK once in a while, but these drinks contain a lot of sugar and calories so water or diluted fruit juice is a better choice.

Food suggestions

  • An ideal pre-workout snack is a banana and a couple of oatcakes; this will provide a boost of energy without weighing children down. Bananas are also packed with potassium, which aids in maintaining proper nerve and muscle function
  • If eating several hours beforehand, a meal based around wholemeal pasta or brown rice with plenty of colourful vegetables is ideal. This is a great way to increase stored
    energy in the muscles and give children the extra oomph they need later in the day

During exercise

  • Game-Card-Glass-Vintage-GraphicsFairy001It is generally not necessary for children to consume food during exercise, unless they are participating in endurance or high intensity sports lasting over 60 minutes (such as long distance running or competitive swimming events). This is when carbohydrate stores may substantially decrease.
  • It is, however, important for children to consume plenty of fluids during exercise, especially if they are exercising in high temperatures. It is important not to wait until children are thirsty to allow them to drink, as this is a sign that they are already dehydrated.

After exercise

  • Children will often feel very hungry after exercise, and food and fluid intake is crucial for optimum recovery after sporting activities. After exercise carbohydrate stores will be lower, so it is important that they are replenished with a carbohydrate-rich meal –
    especially if the child is doing more exercise later on that day or the following day
  • The post-exercise meal should also include high
    quality, lean protein. Consuming this as soon as blafre20-294x300possible after exercise will be most beneficial for recovery, helping to repair exercise-induced damage to muscle fibres and help reduce soreness.
  • If children are unable to have a full meal after exercise, try to ensure they have a small snack that contains both carbohydrate and protein within the first 30-60 minutes to help begin the recovery process
  • To replace the fluid lost from sweating, it is vital to restore hydration levels as part of recovery, so remember to encourage children to keep drinking plenty of fluids after exercising

Food suggestions

  • A chicken sandwich or salad with sliced avocado or a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts are ideal post-sport snacks. Alternatively, a vegetable omelette or a baked potato with tuna or beans contains the perfect mix of carbohydrates and protein to help children get the most from their sporting activities.

© Sarah West Nutrition

A guide to nutritious packed lunches

No single food group will provide all the nutrients that growing children need (for energy, weight management, cognitive function, growth and development). To get the right balance, a nutritious packed lunch should contain the following:

  • Energy-giving carbohydrates (such as wholemeal bread, pittas and pasta, oatcakes, rice cakes and potatoes). Wholemeal bread and pasta contain more nutrients and fibre than white alternatives, meaning they take longer for the body to digest and keep children feeling fuller for longer. 34Rice should be avoided in packed lunches as it can be a food poisoning risk when kept at room temperature
  • A source of protein – such as lean meat, fish, eggs, beans and pulses, hummous or a small pot of nuts/nut butter (in non-allergic individuals)
  • A dairy item (such as mini individually wrapped cheeses) or yoghurt. Opt for natural yogurt where possible, with added berries for natural sweetness
  • Vegetables or salad (celery and carrot sticks or cherry tomatoes are tasty and easy to eat, and good to dip in hummous or tzatziki)
  • A portion of fruit (such as a banana, an easy-peel satsuma, dried apricots or a small box of raisins)

Fruits and vegetables that include a mix of bright colours will also provide the most varied selection of beneficial nutrients – encourage your child to ‘eat a rainbow’.

Foods to avoid

Research has shown that a typical packed lunch serves up more than a six-year-old’s entire daily sugar limit. Most of the sugar content found in packed lunches comes from ‘free sugars’ – these are sugars added to food (such as sucrose and glucose) or those naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices. It does not include sugar naturally present in milk, whole fruit and vegetables.chocIMG_7886

Avoid your child filling up on free sugars and empty calories by limiting processed, convenience foods with poor nutritional value – such as fizzy drinks, crisps, chocolate, biscuits or sweets. A two-finger Kit Kat contains 48% a seven-year old’s recommended sugar intake, so is best as a treat a couple of times a week, rather than an everyday staple. Swap chocolate or cereal bars for lower sugar alternatives – such as fruit in sugar free jelly or popcorn.

Drinks such as Fruits Shoots and Capri Sun can contain more than a six year-old’s recommended maximum daily free sugar intake, so are also best avoided (with water, sugar free squash or milk good alternatives).

© Sarah West Nutrition

Healthy eating starts with you – how to be a positive food role model for your child

44050902574705617xtH0qrFGcOne of the biggest challenges many parents face is having a picky eater in the family. Many children become fussy with food around the age of 18-24 months, often forming the start of a long term battle for many parents.

The Government recommends that all children eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but research suggests that only 1 in 5 children achieve this – with many pre-schoolers often having days where they eat no fruit or vegetables at all. In contrast, the average child consumes more than three times the maximum amount of processed sugar recommended.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is important for everyone, but children particularly require a range of nutrients for healthy growth and development. A nutritious diet can stabilise energy, sharpen the mind and improve mood – allowing children to maximise their potential both at home and at nursery or school.

So how can you help encourage your child to eat a nutritious and varied diet and develop a positive relationship with food?

Lead by example

The way parents talk about food and the types of foods they choose to eat are the most important influencers when it comes to a child’s eating habits. Children learn by example
and love to copy, so it’s crucial to make a conscious effort to practice what you preach.

Top tips:

  • Try to eat together as much as possible. 2Research suggests that family mealtimes have a big impact on food choices later in life, and encourages consumption of fruit, vegetables and dairy products.
  • When eating around your child, be sure to eat across all food groups – including a good mix of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, lean meats, fish, beans and pulses. If you make poor choices, your child will be encouraged to do the same.
  • Don’t give any attention to food refusal – this can simply encourage it. Instead, focus on people around the table who are eating well and discuss aspects of the meal that were particularly enjoyed. It may take time, but your child will eventually realise that they will get more attention from eating well than they do from being fussy.

Increase Exposure

Parents have an important role to play in increasing a child’s familiarity with fruits and vegetables – not only at mealtimes, but in a variety of settings. The aim is to make these a familiar part of everyday life and not just a dreaded moment at the table.

Top tips:

  • Point out and talk about healthy foods as often as possible. Read books that contain bright images of fruits and vegetables and use real fruits and vegetables in games and activities. Allow your child to help pick out healthy foods and encourage physical contact with them.
  • Children love to eat foods they have grown themselves, so try growing your own. You don’t need an allotment or any expertise – many foods can be grown in a pot on your windowsill.

Keep at it

Studies show that children are born with an innate fondness for sweet foods and less of a preference for bitter or sour foods. To help override this response, it’s important for parents to repeatedly expose children to flavours that they are naturally wary of, rather than simply feeding them the foods they like to eat. If your child rejects kale and broccoli and is never offered it again, they simply won’t EVER learn to like it.

6755 (2)Top tips:

  • Offer small portions, and then encourage children to go for seconds if they are still hungry. This will seem less overwhelming than large, adult-sized portions.
  • To mix things up, try offering fruits and vegetables in these different states – e.g. raw, boiled, steamed, oven-cooked. You might find that while your child doesn’t like boiled carrots, they will eat them raw.
  • It takes approximately 11 times for a child to try a new food. To make the process easier, try to offer the same food in different ways. For example, raw carrot as sticks (great for dipping) but also grated or in a smoothie. Keep track of when and how a food is offered with a star chart – you can offer a star for every new vegetable eaten or when your child tastes a food they have previously rejected.

Avoid making separate meals

Offering up a selection of entirely alternative meals at meal times teaches children that they can control the food they eat, which they will soon learn to exploit.

Top Tips:

  • Only ever offer a choice between two healthy options at meal times. This allows an element of choice and independence but ensures you’re still in control (and leads to less waste).
  • If a meal is still refused, it’s best to clear it away after 20 minutes or so (or after you’ve finished your meal) and put it in the fridge to try again later.
  • Avoid forcing or coaxing your child into eating, as this can further establish a negative relationship with food. Whilst many parents are afraid of their child going hungry, missing meals ultimately makes them hungrier for the next meal and more likely to eat it. Whatever you do, avoid allowing mealtimes to become a battle.
  • Offer healthy snacks between meals so that your child won’t ever have to go too long without some fuel. However, avoid replacing meals or snacks with milk. If children are filling up on milk they are not going to be hungry for meals and solid foods, which is what should make up the majority of their calories by the age of one.

© Sarah West Nutrition