by Katie Martin, Healthy Learning Paths’ Instructor
Have you heard of “brain food?” Brain food is used when discussing what makes kids smart. Omega 3 fatty acids are one of those “brain foods.” But foods for the brain, go beyond academics. Healthy foods have a strong impact on mental health of children and adults. Our daily food choices make a difference for both physical fitness and mental fitness.
For example, have you ever experienced the sugar roller coaster? Imagine that mid-morning crash after coffee and sweets for breakfast. The brain experiences the sugar high jitters then quickly crashes and burns over a short period of time. Now, imagine a child dropped off at camp after a breakfast of sugar laced cereal or a sweet breakfast bar. Within a few hours, the sugar rush converts to a sugar crash leaving the brain sluggish. Suddenly, you have a tired, irritable, and hungry child who struggles to concentrate, learn, and manage mood. Not a great way to enjoy camp or build mental fitness, wouldn’t you agree?
So what does “brain food” do for mental fitness? The brain needs quality energy to function, just as cars need clean gas to run well. Keep in mind that the brain of a child undergoes amazing changes as the child grows and develops. Pediatricians remind us that kids who practice healthy food choices experience less anxiety and depression and improved social relationships. Healthy nutrition helps the brain perform better in school subjects such as math and reading. Healthy nutrition strengthens the immune system to fight off illness and puts the brain in overall state of well-being. In short, healthy foods make us feel good and do good, from mental, physical and social perspectives.
What are the “brain foods” for magical mental fitness? Glad you asked, as it is never too late to make changes. You can do it. Here are a few tips to help kids of all ages:
- Choose seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables to stretch your dollars and enjoy great tasty foods.
- Choose whole grains for breads and pastas.
- Brown rice, lentils, and beans are important sources of protein, fiber and other nutrients.
- Choose healthy fats such as avocados, nuts, wild salmon, and lean proteins such as real chicken (not nuggets), turkey, and fish.
- Summer is the perfect time to invite kids to shop and prepare meals with you.
- Drink water throughout the day and remember summer heat means more water.
- Have kids clean and slice fresh fruits and vegetables to store in the fridge for quick snacks.
- Avoid sweet and salty snack aisles in grocery stores to keep your pantry and kids free of junk food jitters.
- Control sugar cravings with fresh fruits. Kids can make cool summer treats by freezing fresh fruits.
- Plan an occasional family outing to make memories while sharing a special treat.
Sugar is not a “brain food.” In fact, kids do not need added sugar in foods. Kids love to learn, so teach them how to recognize sugar on food labels. Sugar is disguised as many names on food ingredients such as:
- Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup
- Cane juice and evaporated cane juice
- Juice Concentrate
- Barley Malt
- Rice syrup
Sugar is listed as grams per serving. About 4 grams (4.2 to be precise) of sugar is equal to one teaspoon. For example, if ¾ cup of cereal has 20 grams of sugar, that is 5 teaspoons of sugar (20 divided by 4). Yikes! That’s a lot of sugar. Want to make the point of how much sugar is in a cereal or other foods? Do the math with your child and let them measure out the amount of sugar in a bowl. Seeing what 5 teaspoons of sugar looks like, leaves a lasting impression for kids of all ages.
Healthy foods are brain foods. Brain foods help kids develop mental fitness. Healthy foods benefit the entire family. Put your family on the path for success by serving brain foods and staying hydrated with water. Brain foods benefit everyone in the family by helping all experience mental fitness. You can do it!