The right nutritional approach can make a great difference in a child’s development, with so much impact on intellectual capacities, concentration and behaviour – not to mention general health of course. We keep hearing about the five-a-day fruits/veg, but there is a bit more to it than that.

A nutritionist recently came to the school where my children study, to give a presentation about breakfast. She was part of the big company that provides lunch for the children. It was followed by breakfast in the school canteen. I asked if I could attend. As a nutrition therapist and as a mother, I was curious to hear what message would be passed on to the 6th-grade students of which my daughter Iris is one.

Stressing the importance of a real breakfast before coming to school, the presentation started well, and with good intentions. As parents, we all know: it’s not a good idea to skip this crucial meal at an early age, especially with the level of concentration that school requires. As children need to hear messages several times from different angles to really integrate them, this part at least was useful.

From there, it all felt a bit, well, dated. We are living in a wonderful time, with amazing discoveries in neuroscience, biology and epigenetics, yet the nutrition lesson sounded like the last centurys Kellogg’s cornflakes ‘wisdom’. Disappointing. But instead of focusing on what’s wrong, lets explore what’s right, and what can really make a difference in our children’s lives.

Building a healthy brain

The brain is composed of fat, and we need fats to keep the brain fit and healthy. Children literally need building-block fats to build their brains from an early age.  The key point here is to understand what types of fats are required. The ones that make people smart are essential fatty acids (EFAs): omega-3 and omega-6 found in fish (EPA and DHA), seeds (ALA), meat, eggs, and dairy products (GLA). Ingesting the wrong fats, the kind that are found in fried and processed foods, has a detrimental effect on the brain, making it slow instead of smart.  Strictly avoid the hydrogenated fats found in processed foods and, for example, doughnuts (make an habit to read labels!).

Here are some tips to get essential fatty acids directly from food :

  • Add pumpkin/sunflower/sesame seeds to smoothies, cakes, muesli
  • Do fish spreads to eat on toasts (with avocado or tomatoes for instance): canned sardines or mackerel with yogurt and lemon, or home-made mayonnaise (it’s better to avoid eating too much of the ‘big fish’ at the top of the food chain, such as tuna and salmon (as they tend to have high concentrations of mercury – often accumulating the heavy metals all they way up the marine food chain!)
  • Use cold pressed seed oils for salad dressings or to spread on cooked foods. Cold pressed oils will be unprocessed, whereas non cold-pressed oils may be heat-treated or pressurised, removing some of their essential nutrients
  • Eat soft boiled or poached eggs (here again, frying can damage or drain the nutriments). Eggs will also help building phospholipids which are important in the brain, regulating mood and mental activity.

Providing vitamin and mineral supplements to children is a good idea, especially with picky eaters who might take a little while to adapt to new food habits. I personally use the Eskimo range from the UK. It is a reliable source (with a lot of attention paid to hazardous heavy metals and PCBs) and my kids like it.

Feeding the brain’s energy

Glucose, the simple form of sugar, is the brain’s fuel. It’s vital for attention and focus. But as with fats, there are important differences in types of sugar. The brain needs fuel, but some sugars are positively detrimental. Many parents know first-hand about the effects of too much sugar, like post-birthday party tantrums. Too little sugar, by contrast, can cause dizziness, irritability, anxiety and many other symptoms.

The secret to keeping healthy and balanced blood sugar levels is to eat without throwing ‘too much fuel on the fire’, nor giving it ’too little oxygen’ to keep it going – in other words, a low glycemic index diet (low GI). A glycemic index is a measure of digestible sugar. The diet consists of replacing refined carbohydrates (white bread, sweets, biscuits – which burn bright, but burn out fast) with complex carbohydrates (whole grains, vegetables, pulses, fruits – which burn steadily for hours). To put it more technically, simple carbs are too quickly absorbed by the blood stream and create insulin peaks, resulting in sudden bursts of energy, followed by dramatic energy drops. ‘Coming off a sugar high’ can affect mood swings and over time create serious behavioural problems.

Tips for switching to a low GI diet :

  • Avoid processed food, prepared meals, ready-to-eat snacks, and especially sodas
  • Use raw sugar cane, dates, dried fruits, a little bit of honey instead of white refined sugar
  • Dilute fruit juices with water if you buy them from the supermarket, as they are highly concentrated
  • Prefer muffins made with fruits rather than croissants and other pastries
  • Replace white bread with organic whole rye, whole spelt, whole gamut or other whole grain breads
  • Use real oats to make porridge or swiss muesli, or organic granola instead of big brand style cereals
  • Eat baked potatoes or mashed potatoes instead of french fries
  • Take the habit of preparing snacks: dried apricots and almonds, humous with carrots, hard boiled eggs, olives, fruits… you can get very inventive!

In general, for your children’s good health, it’s best to avoid :

  • Hydrogenated fats (margarines, processed cakes and cookies)
  • ‘E-numbers’ ingredients and artificial sweeteners
  • White bread, pasts, rice and flour – instead use wholegrain, wholemeal bread and flour
  • Sodas
  • Sugar
  • Eggs that aren’t organic
  • Cheap reconstituted meat and seafood (burgers from fast food, nuggets, hot dog sausages, surimi)

My daughters love a series of videos (you can see one here) that show children whose parents tell them they have eaten all their Halloween candies, as a joke. The reactions of some of the children is no joke – epic tantrums that really take the idea of ‘mood swings’ to a whole new level!

Recommended book : Read Smart Food For Smart Kids by Patrick Holford.

Recommended Supplement Supplier (Kids Multivitamine) :