Dietitians suggest starting kids off on the right foot with a healthy breakfast -- like oatmeal and blueberries -- and then continuing on with the nutritious staples throughout the day.
Even with the school year starting up again this week, many kids are still in summer brain mode. As they head back into the classroom, attention spans may be low and cognitive skills lag as they’re more interested in catching up with friends than solving math equations.
But here’s something for parents to chew on: What you feed your kids can have an impact on their brain health and help with cognition, memory, energy level and attention span.
Starting the day off on the right foot with foods rich in protein, fiber, Omega-3s and other nutrients, and continuing with these healthier options for lunch, dinner and snack-time, will help students stay focused, and that, ultimately can mean better performance in school.
“They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day and it’s a great way to start your day,” said Angela Komis, a registered dietitian at Staten Island University Hospital’s South site in Prince’s Bay.
“If you start with the right foods, good things are going to happen all day. They [kids] will have the energy and brain power to deal with anything that comes their way.”
Today, Ms. Komis and Angela Lemond, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, weigh in on foods that build mighty minds.
Ms. Komis recommends children eat both the egg white and yolk for optimal health. Eggs contain choline and lecithin, two substances that support brain function and “make the brain work better,” she explained. “Without these, you couldn’t think as well,” Ms. Komis said.
Plus, Ms. Lemond noted, eggs are high in protein, which helps keep energy levels stable throughout the day, as opposed to sugary foods that give a quick hit of energy that drops off.
Studies conducted on rats and mice in a laboratory setting have shown that walnuts are beneficial for memory, cognition and thinking, Ms. Komis said. Additionally, they are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to better brain health.
“They also have antioxidants, which protect the brain and other cells from oxidative stress,” she said, explaining, “That’s when compounds and things in the environment that are unhealthy try to attach to the cells. But when you eat foods high in antioxidants, it helps protect those cells.”
Another food high in protein is Greek yogurt, said Ms. Lemond, noting that like eggs, it can help keep children’s energy levels stable throughout the day.
Both she and Ms. Komis advise choosing varieties that are lower in sugar, and add items like berries and nuts for flavor. Ms. Komis points out that Greek yogurt also contains probiotics, a good bacteria that can help with gastrointestinal disturbances.
Ms. Lemond explained that fresh fruits and veggies contain nutrients like potassium, magnesium and calcium that kids — and adults — may not be getting enough of.
“People forget that vitamins and minerals help complete energy cycles,” she said. “If you have a deficiency, it will slow things down.”
Ms. Komis points to blueberries, in particular, as an antioxidant-rich fruit that may help with memory function and suggests using them to make jams or in fruit smoothies or milkshakes.
You know the saying about beans being good for your heart, but they also can be good for your mind, according to Ms. Lemond. The fiber-rich food source helps slow down the rate at which the body digests food, so you won’t have as many “energy ups and downs,” which can help keep kids alert in class all day. Plus, it will keep them from thinking about their rumbling tummies.
“Foods with fiber, the digestion is slow and steady,” the Plano, Texas-based dietitian explained. “You will be satisfied with the foods you eat longer.”
When it comes to oatmeal, not all varieties are created equal. Ms. Komis recommends steel-cut oats, also known as Irish oats, which are high in fiber and not as processed as instant oatmeal. “The fiber in oatmeal will help kids think and concentrate in class, instead of being worried about what they’re going to eat while in class,” she said.
Oatmeal also contains B vitamins, which are needed for optimal body functioning. “It’s important to have a well-balanced diet with plenty of vitamins, minerals and fiber,” Ms. Komis said. “If you’re eating processed foods without a lot of vitamins, your body isn’t going to run well.”