It’s alarming to think that in any given year, about 20% of our kids are affected by mental health difficulties. Fortunately, one area of research showing particular promise in the prevention and treatment of mental disorders is the emerging branch of medicine “Nutritional Psychiatry”. This is concerned with feeding the minds of our kids, in order to protect them from the burden of mental illness. While the evidence base is still growing, rigorous systematic reviews and meta-analysis have demonstrated that eating healthy foods is associated with a reduced likelihood of mental health disturbance such as depression and anxiety in children and a significant relationships exists between “unhealthy” diet patterns and poorer mental health.
Some Fabulous Facts about the Brain
- It’s 60% fat, 20% of which are “essential fats” which must be brought in by food and cannot be made by the body
- “Mood balancing hormones” or brain chemicals called neurotransmitters are made directly from the proteins, vitamins and minerals provided by the food you eat
- Other foods have a role in supplying the antioxidant vitamins, minerals and enzymes which “clean up” the brain and keep it healthy
What are the Essential Ingredients to Building a Brilliant, Resilient brain?
Well – have you ever wondered what the brain feels like? Grab a slab of tofu and you’ll experience the consistency of the brain! It’s smooth and wet and a bit spongy thanks to its main ingredients – fat, protein and water. The brain is made up of the same things, brought in by what we eat and drink – so it makes sense that what you feed your kids on a daily basis could have an impact on their brain function, mood, behaviour, sleep and well-being.
INGREDIENT ONE – FAT GLORIOUS FAT!
Poor old “fat” has received a bad rap over the years – but growing brains actually can’t thrive without it. Certain fats known as the essential fatty acids or omegas 3s are especially important as the body can’t make them, so they must be brought in by food and these make up about 20% of the brain. Omega 3s have been found to be protective in a range of mental health presentations, including major depressive disorder.
Fish is a major source of omega 3 and worldwide data has found a strong correlation between fish consumption and protection from depression and suicide.
It’s not all good news when it comes to fats. Saturated fats (from butter, lard, whole milk, cream, pastry, coconut and palm oils) and hydrogenated- or trans-fats (unsaturated vegetable oils that have been refined and hardened) are very unfriendly for the brain giving it a hard, ridged texture which makes it less functional – no one likes hard, rigid tofu – right? In addition, too much of these types of fats can also set off free radicals which can actually cause harm to the brain and lead to longer term issues such as dementia. Definitely best to limit these and fill growing tummies with other nourishing options. Remember – fats are very filling – go for a little bit of the best!
Omega Brain Food tips:
- For a healthy brain feed your kids plenty of foods high in Omega 3 fats and limit the saturated kind.
- The richest sources are:
- Fatty fish – especailly sardines, mackerel, pink salmon, trout, herring and tuna. Children should have at least two serves of fatty fish per week
- Nourishing oils such as flaxseed, soybean and canola
- Nuts and seeds like chia seeds and walnuts
- Practical Snack ideas: Matchbox sized serve of walnuts or add chia seeds to cereals and baked items such as pikelets or banana bread
- Family meal ideas: Pink salmon or tuna patties, salmon pasta bake made with tinned fish, tuna potato salad, tuna and tinned bean salad, stuffed capsicum salmon melt with rice, nicoise salad, fish croquettes, sardines on toast, tuna / salmon toasties. Remember you can make a salad dressing with a teaspoon of canola or flaxseed oil , sprinkle some nuts on a salad.
INGREDIENT TWO – PROTEIN POWER
A resilient brain needs chemicals or neurotransmitters in order to work and these chemicals have a role in regulating moods and emotions. And guess what? These are made from food as well! Amino acids are the small building blocks that make up the proteins in food and these constituents go into forming the body’s many components, including neurotransmitters such as serotonin, adrenaline and dopamine. For example, serotonin, which is associated with feelings of contentment, is made from the amino acid tryptophan which is very high in eggs, lean meat, milk, free range poultry and legumes.
The right balance of neurotransmitters are essential for kids to be cool, calm and alert. The wrong mix can create many symptoms, ranging from difficulties in sleeping to feeling unmotivated, anxious or depressed. Make sure your kids eat a wide variety of nourishing protein-rich foods for a brilliant, resilient brain!
Brain Building Food Tips
- To help top up your child’s supply of brain-chemical making proteins, make sure they have a variety of protein rich foods
- The richest sources of brain chemical building blocks are
- Eggs, fish and lean meats
- Wholegrains such as grainy breads, brown pasta & rice, oats
- Sesame & sunflower seeds
- Snack ideas: apple crumble slice with sesame and oats, sunflower seed muesli, sunflower seed pesto dip, oat and seed protein balls
- Family meal ideas: oat and sesame crumbed chicken, lean meat and three veg (BBQ, grill or roasted) with a brown rice or pasta salad, veggie frittata, eggs done anyway on toast, tinned fish pasta dish
- How much? A sprinkle of nuts and two eggs would fulfil the protein requirements of an 8 year old for a day
Remember, no need to dash out and stock up on protein powders or specially formulated protein products – kids get plenty of protein in the foods they eat.
INGREDIENT THREE – BRAIN FUEL
It may come as a surprise to know that the brain generates enough power to beam an LED light and information in the brain can travel faster than a formula 1 racing car (approximately 268mph for those who like details!) To fuel all of this activity, the brain needs glucose. In fact the brain chews through 20% of all the calories our kids manage to bring in over the day and it can only survive on glucose.
Glucose….. That’s sugar – right?
Well kind of.
It seems the minute sugar is mentioned these days, many parents develop temporary hysteria believing the common myth that sugar will send their children “hyper”. Well, take a breath and hang in with me. Not all sugars are created equal… the kind we’re talking about here is the champion of all sugars – complex carbohydrates – which eventually, after lots of work in the gut become glucose, vitamins and minerals. It’s a fact that self-regulation or the ability to control behaviour and impulses, drops with blood sugar levels which can turn your child into a hungry and angry grouch!
These slow releasing,complex carbohydrates provide benefits for memory and cognitive performance. Perhaps this is because they ensure a more even and sustained supply of glucose which fits with the research that the best way to ensure that your child’s brain is functioning at its best is to offer a regular supply of foods with carbs, throughout the day, say in 3-4 hourly intervals. Preferably, this should also provide other vitamins and minerals at the same time, not just sugar or glucose. So what are the magical foods that fit these criteria?
Foodie Tips to Fuel the Brain:
- For a happy, healthy, alert brain, include regular sources of complex, tummy-filling carbohydrates as a strategy to make sure that your kids have the best possible behavioural and cognitive functioning.
- The richest sources are:
- Wholegrain bread & pasta, wholemeal flour, basmati rice, oats
- Vegetables especially sweet potato and other root vegetables
- Beans and legumes
- Snack ideas: oat slice, rice pudding, banana toasties, carrot and parsnip muffins
- Side dishes: sweet potato mash or chips, roasted root veggies, roasted chickpeas
- Main family meals toasted bean tortilla, chickpea and lentil curry, four bean con carne, four bean mix with pasta or basmati
- How much? 4-7 serving spread throughout the day , this is roughly one serve (e.g. a slice of bread or half cup of pasta) with each meal plus one snack either side.
When it comes to “how much” this is very individual and you can get too much of a good thing! Kids’ bodies are full of wisdom – your job is to offer them nourishing foods and their job is to trust and listen to their bodies to know when it has had enough. This will ensure they don’t end up storing away too much energy for a rainy day, meaning they will gain weight.
INGREDIENT FOUR – VITAMINS AND MINERALS: The Brain Builders and Cleaners
All of this intense brain activity generates wastes, so the brain needs foods that can clean it and protect it from damage – that is, foods that are high in antioxidants.
There are a few different types of antioxidants provided by food and the ones we’re interested in are vitamins and minerals; all of which are supplied directly by the food we eat.
List of Foods to Keep the Brain Squeaky Clean!
|Brain Cleaner (antioxidant) name||Foods which give us heaps!|
|Selenium||Brazil nuts, mushrooms, broccoli and fish|
|Vitamin A||Dairy products and fish, dark green and yellow, orange and red vegetables and fruit|
|Vitamin C||Fresh fruits such oranges, grapefruits and kiwi,strawberries, red, yellow and green capsicum, tomatoes, raw dark leafy vegetables|
|Vitamin E||Vegetable oils, avocados, sweet potato, wheat germ, sunflower seeds, nuts, peanut butter|
|B group vitamins||Wholegrain and fortified cereals, pulses, nuts, cereals, lean meats, peanuts, bananas, green leafy vegetables, dairy products|
|Zinc||Red meat and cheese|
Not only are vitamins and minerals needed as brain cleaners, they also have other essential jobs like helping convert the amino acids, our protein building blocks, into neurotransmitters. The vitamins of interest here are the B group and minerals; magnesium, selenium and zinc. As you can see in the above table, they are found mostly in plant foods such as whole grains, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds as well as in dairy foods, fish and meat.
The mental health and behavioural benefits of foods for children rich in vitamins and minerals are indisputable and remember all of these are widely available in foods – so generally there’s no need for multivitamin supplements.
Brain Cleaning and Building Food Tips:
- The recipe for success here is to eat a wide variety of foods from all of the food groups
- The Veggie group can be the most challenging for busy families so try these tips:
- Add canned or frozen veg to any meat wet dish such as bolognaise, stews or stir through sauces
- Keep frozen veggie soup in the fridge and serve for a quick lunch or dinner entree
- Serve veggies and dips as snacks
- Have a bowl of prepared salad ready to go in the fridge for serving over a few nights
- Add grated veggies to savoury muffins and other baked goods or pancakes and pikelets
- Get the kids in the kitchen and help prepare their meals
- Model eating veggies yourself: kids do what you do; not necessarily what you tell them!
INGREDIENT FIVE – H20 TO GO!
Water! It makes up about 80% of the weight of the brain and even a small drop in hydration can affect a child’s concentration, memory, alertness and cognitive skills . This one is a no brainer! Make sure your child has access to water, especially while at school and watch out for too many dehydrating foods such as salty, flavoured rice crackers, chips and other processed foods as well as caffeinated “energy drinks”.
INGREDIENT SIX – Gut Instinct
What’s the gut got to do with the brain, you ask?? Well…. This is a relatively new, interesting and exciting area of research termed psychobiotics. The gut is now being labelled the second brain. Early research suggests an important role of “good gut bacteria” (known as the microbiota) in influencing brain development, behaviour and mood. A healthy gut microbiota may have important implications for the prevention and treatment of common mental health disorders. And guess what? The best ways to keep a child’s gut healthy and full of good bacteria is with nourishing food! That is, to grow and feed lots of healthy bugs in their gut. You can do this by :
- Offering plenty of indigestible, bacteria feeding dietary fibres from these foods:
- Garlic, onion, leek, shallots, spring onion, asparagus, beetroot, fennel bulb, green peas, snow peas, sweetcorn, savoy cabbage
- Chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, baked beans, soybeans
- Custard apples, nectarines, white peaches, persimmon, tamarillo, watermelon, grapefruit, pomegranate. Dried fruit (eg. dates, figs)
- Barley, rye bread, rye crackers, pasta, gnocchi, couscous, wheat bran, wheat bread, oats
- Cashews, pistachio nuts
- Include foods enriched with probiotics or fermented such as yoghurt and Kefir drinks. For the more exotic eater or if its part of the family’s cuisine – olives, sauerkraut, Kimchi, and miso soup.
- Offer Flavonoids found in brightly coloured fruits &vegetables such as red cabbage and beetroot
A good sign that your child has a healthy gut full of good, brain nourishing bacteria is that they’ll do plenty of ripper farts! And to make all those stinky farts worthwhile – The benefits of a healthy gut don’t just stop at mental health, but there is promising research that it supports a healthy immune system too to protect against allergy, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease!
Putting it all Together
So, I know what you’re thinking – that’s all very well and good, but some of you would be happy to get your kids to eat anything at all, especially healthy foods and many of you are busy working parents and often pleased that any sort of dinner makes it to the table. Before you pop down to the pharmacy to buy yourself some multivitamins and fish oil tablets, be aware that these can never replace the powerful, complex, elegant nutritional synergy which nutrients from foods offer.
Even little improvements may have an impact on mental health, so aim small and start somewhere. Kids will not go hungry – so if healthy foods are offered often enough, they’ll come around to the idea – especially if you’re eating these foods yourself! Keep it simple and don’t forget to ask your children for their ideas and help too.
By encouraging and promoting eating these foods you’re helping your children to achieve their best potential and protect them from illnesses of the brain. We’ve accepted for some time now that healthy eating is essential to good physical health – well, the evidence is certainly growing to suggest that this extends to the physical health of the brain, in turn translating into the emotional well-being of our children – building brilliant, resilient brains!
For a quick read, offer a variety of these wonderful foods to your kids, every day: “Foods to Build Brilliant, Resilient Brains” . Pin this cheat’s sheet to the fridge and ask the little ones to tick off the foods they have eaten that day!
In summary – the evidence is mounting to support the belief that good tucker builds a healthy mind; one which can concentrate, emotionally regulate, motivate and contemplate as well as brilliantly resilient to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.
The key messages are
- limit saturated fats and low nutrient dense foods
- offer a variety of nourishing foods such as: fish, unrefined wholegrains, colourful fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds and vegetable oils, lean proteins and dairy foods.
This recipe will provide them with the 6 essential, protective brain ingredients;
- slow release carbohydrates
- protein building blocks
- vitamins & minerals
- essential fatty acids
- good gut bacteria
Give it a go – all children deserve a Brilliant, Resilient Brain!
Cheat Sheet – Foods to Build Brilliant, Resilient Brains! – Laura Kiely Accredited Practising Dietitian
basmati or brown rice
bread grainy wholemeal
cereal wholegrain fortified
rye bread or crackers
lean red meat
poultry- free range
Salmon pink / Atlantic
|Nuts and seeds
chia & sesame seeds
raw dark leafy’s
red kidney beans
yellow, orange & red veg
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