Nutrition for brain power!
(This blog first appeared in a slighty different form in a letter to parents of pupils at Taunton School, one of the UK's leading Independent schools, preparing for GCSE exams in 2016).
The brain needs a regular supply of fuel, just like the rest of your body. You can't run a finely tuned racing car without putting in the right fuel. It's the same for your brain. This finely tuned 'computer' needs the best and most appropriate foods or fuel to help you think optimally, for you to achieve the best 'thinking performance' you can.
The key is to eat regular meals focusing on good quality protein sources such as chicken, fish, lean meat, eggs, pulses and dairy products, alongside complex slow-release carbohydrates e.g. wholewheat pasta and bread, and plenty of vegetables.
Start the day with a good breakfast
The old adage, 'breakfast is the most important meal of the day' seems to play out in relation to academic performance (Kimber. C.P BSc Dissertation 2014). Children should always eat breakfast to ensure sustained energy for their mind, body and starting the day in good spirit.
Eating porridge or soaked oats (bircher) can be an excellent way to feed the brain to prepare for the day ahead and can be prepared the night before - see recipe below. Add fruit to porridge as a natural sweetener, such as berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries) or stewed apples plus some nuts and seeds for boosting brain power. Alternatives would be a slice of wholegrain toast topped with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon or mashed avocado on toast taking no more than 10 minutes to prepare.
Easy Bircher (serves 2)
Snacks – mid morning and mid afternoon
To keep your child sustained throughout the day and support memory and mood, add a couple of protein-based snacks in small containers into their school bag - oatcakes with peanut butter (or other nut butters), raw carrots, cucumber and peppers with hummus or a small pot of cashews (or almonds) mixed with pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries.
Lunch and dinners
Lunch should include protein, complex carbohydrates and fat as well as vegetables/salad:
Protein is needed for brain function. It is involved in helping the 100 billion brain cells communicate with each other telling you how to think, move, sleep, get up, remember and focus. When you eat a protein rich food, it is broken up in the stomach into individual amino acids, these are then reformed to make the chemicals needed to send messages between the brain cells. Good quality proteins are: eggs, grass fed and organic meat, chicken, fish, lentils, pulses, peas, chickpeas, beans, avocado, nuts and seeds.
The solid matter of the human brain is nearly 60% fat! It is well documented that the omega-3 fats are needed for healthy brain function – these are found in oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines) so aim to eat at least two to three times a week. If you are vegetarian then flaxseeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds include omega-3 fats that are essential for brain health.
Lunch/dinner ideas: Salmon with new potatoes and steamed broccoli or chicken/vegetable curry, brown basmati rice and crispy chickpeas, wholegrain pasta with pesto made with walnuts, basil, rocket and olive oil served with a salad. Packed lunches don't need to be constained to sandwiches; cold pasta is a great alternative in the lunch box with a small salad.
Eat a rainbow plate!
Colourful fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants and have a protective effect on the brain as well as being more attractive on the plate! Try to include apples, pears, berries, citrus fruits, broccoli, beetroot, sweet potatoes, carrots, herbs and spices into your daily eating.
Vitamins for the brain
Children should avoid fizzy drinks as these affect their blood sugar levels - whilst giving a short-term buzz it will be followed by an energy dip so definitely not good for sustained concentration!
And finally, remember to keep your child hydrated– ideally they should drink about eight glasses a day (equivalent 1.5 – 2 litres).
Did you know that by the time you feel thirsty you are most likely to be already dehydrated!
Colourful water bottles are now readily availble with filters and infusers so you can always add some fruit, slices of cucumber or herbs, such as mint, to give water a natural flavouring.
Get the new academic year off to a good start - feed your child's brain!
N.B. Water bottles should be BPA-free (a growing body of research links the chemical Bisphenol-A, found in many plastics, to higher risks of disease ( Rochester 2013).
Rochester JR (2013) Bisphenol-A & Human Health: A review of the literature Reproductive Toxicology http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.reprotex.2013.08.008