Kids health: Optimising learning and concentration with nutrition
Imagine you’re at work...
It’s about 10am and you’re hungry. You skipped breakfast this morning because you were in a rush or didn’t feel like it, instead grabbing a coffee when you got into the office (and maybe a biscuit out of the jar). You’re struggling to concentrate and feel like you’ve read the same paragraph about 10 times over. Rushing out this morning means you also didn’t bring a healthy snack so you rummage around the biscuit tin once again for that quick hit of energy. Sound familiar?
Now imagine all of the above, but you’re in an intense learning environment (and you don’t have access to coffee or a biscuit jar!) You’re being introduced to brand-new concepts every.single.day. And you’re growing – everyone keeps telling you how you’ve shot up! Your mind wanders to what you’re doing after school – is it basketball tonight? Or dancing? You’re unsure, life is very hectic!
Parents today are very aware of the nature of the life of a growing child or adolescent: as well as schooling demands, many young people participate in one or more extracurricular activities per week. It’s busy, fast-paced and demanding, and therefore so important that kids are fueled adequately.
Whilst the human brain accounts for only about 2% of body weight, it uses almost a quarter of our total energy resources!
Low-carb might be OK for you, but it’s not necessarily suitable for your children…
During a normal day, the brain will chew through about half of our total glucose consumption, which the body obtains through the ingestion of carbohydrates. This is especially relevant for children as the requirements for glucose increase during challenging mental tasks, like learning and problem solving.
Don’t rush to buy jelly beans just yet…
The glycemic index (GI) represents the extent to which a certain food raises blood sugar levels following ingestion (for more information, check out the University of Sydney’s glycemic index webpage here). Using the GI of foods helps us to understand how they are likely to impact on energy and brain function.
Low GI carbohydrate-containing foods like oats, legumes and wholegrains support a steady release of glucose into the blood which lasts over a period and then declines gradually in-line with timing of the next meal.
High GI foods like white bread, refined grain products (e.g. white rice and white pasta) and sugary foods like chocolate, lollies, soft drink etc., provide the body with an instant hit of glucose – which is likely why we reach for them at 10am or 3pm, just to get that energy boost to see us through. To be fair, there is evidence that suggests that these foods do exactly that – improve short term concentration. However, what goes up must come down and the sharp rise in blood sugar levels is followed by a rapid decline which can manifest as low mood, fatigue, irritability, and poor attention and concentration.
Considering the glycemic index is a simple way to choose more appropriate carbohydrate-containing foods to encourage concentration and attention in class. If in doubt, choose whole-grain options, i.e. brown rice, wholemeal pasta, quinoa, buckwheat, oats.
Consider: A low GI breakfast might be a bowl of porridge made from oats and buckwheat, topped with various nuts, seeds, and blueberries. Don’t get too wrapped up in the GI values of fruits and vegetables as getting these into kids can be difficult enough!
Fat doesn’t make you fat…
I am on a personal mission to eliminate any fears about including adequate amounts of healthy fat in the diet. Not only does eating fat not make you fat; it keeps you full, keeps sugar cravings at bay, and provides a host of other health benefits.
Fat slows down the rate at which the stomach empties, encouraging that slow and steady release of energy required for extended periods of learning and concentration.
Fat also assists with the absorption of some essential vitamins found in fruits and veg so there’s absolutely no reason to reduce the fat content of children’s diets. However, whilst ‘good fats’ are crucial for brain development and appetite control, the addition of too many saturated and trans fats, such as typically found in chocolate, lollies, chips, packaged snacks and bars, can be damaging to the brain long term.
Consider: Avocado is a beautiful addition to any sandwich or salad (especially while in season and cheap!). Don’t be afraid of adding some good quality, grass-fed butter to sandwiches, or olive oil to salads (grass-fed butter contains higher amounts of essential fatty acids and vitamins). Fish are also an excellent source of essential fatty acids.
Don’t forget about protein…
So if low GI carbs fuel the brain, good-quality fats keep you full and nourish the brain structurally, why do we need protein?
Protein is the foundation of the growth and development of all organs and tissues within the body, including the brain.
Protein is also vital, due to its constituent amino acids, for brain function in regards to the formation of brain messengers, neurotransmitters. There’s no need to get too caught up, just make sure you’re supplying a range of different protein sources and at least one at every meal.
Consider: Left over roast meats, chickpeas, quinoa, hard-boiled eggs, tofu etc.
The best way to support attention, concentration, learning, and overall brain power of your children at school is to provide them with a varied range of nutrient-rich whole foods.
Find an easy-to-use GI database online (this is a good one) and try to choose carbohydrate products that are low GI to support the sustenance of steady bloody sugar levels between meals to keep the brain fueled with glucose: it’s primary fuel source.
Include healthy fats like avocado, grass-fed butter, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and fish to keep kids full and nourish the structure of the brain.
Protein is essential for growth and development of all body tissues and organs, including the brain but also those legs that are kicking the footy at lunch time, or the arms swinging on monkey bars.
Finally, make sure that kids are not going to school without breakfast! Smoothies are a great option for fussy eaters or put together some overnight oats the night before. For snacks, have boiled eggs in the fridge ready to go at all times or hummus to dip veggie sticks into.
Sending children to school with whole food lunches and snacks is a great first step toward maximising learning and concentration potential. However just like adults, all children are different: some suffer food allergy and/or intolerance, some have difficulties learning and concentrating, and some might struggle emotionally during the school day. For targeted nutritional guidance and, in some cases, supplementation, it is best to make an appointment so we can work together to achieve optimal health for your child, and ensure they receive the individualised care they need and deserve.
Gropper, S., Smith, J. & Groff, J. (2009). Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism (5th Ed.). Wadsworth.
Mergenthaler, P., Lindauer, U., Dienel, G. & Meisel, A. (2013). Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function. Trends Neurosci, 36(10), 587-597.