Children are back to school, which can mean long days in the classroom and even longer days with after-school activities. Fueling children with healthy foods is a great way to help boost brain function.
"Food can affect their memory, their pattern of thinking, their abstract thinking, their small motor skills," says Janine Whiteson, a nutritionist.
What we eat, or don't eat, can also impact one's mood, Whiteson went on to say. And "can cause anxiety, depression and even aggression."
Food can also have an impact on our immune system and blood sugar.
"All the food we eat really impacts our brain function all of the time," says Robyn Blackford, a registered dietician at Lurie Children's Hospital.
Finding the Right Foods
Despite the importance of proper nutrition for adequate brain function and overall health, many children aren't meeting the proper requirements. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 9- to 13-year-old boys and 14- to 18-year-old girls consume the lowest amount of vegetables compared to the rest of the population. Similarly, the age group with the lowest average fruit intake was teenage girls. According to the guidelines, children also consume too much saturated fat and salt.
Consuming too much salt can negatively affect blood pressure. A press release from the American Heart Association journal, Circulation in 2021 reported that persistent high blood pressure over time might lead to more memory and learning problems later in life.
"Our results show active monitoring and prevention of heart disease and stroke risk factors, beginning from early childhood, can also matter greatly when it comes to brain health," says Juuso O. Hakala, one of the study's authors, in the press release.
Whiteson was 12 years old when she was diagnosed with severe high blood pressure. Her childhood experiences later inspired her to obtain a master's degree in nutrition. Her parents made dietary changes, such as switching high sodium foods to more whole foods, to help her overall health. Now Whiteson helps parents and families with making proper food choices every day.
"It's important to use nutrition as a preventative, so we can save our kids and save ourselves from any other illness or disease later on in life. So, it's important to start making these changes early, especially for our kids," says Blackford.
Every child can have different dietary requirements and underlying conditions. So it's important to consult with a medical professional for individual dietary needs regarding healthy meals and snacks, to improve brain function and children's overall health.
"A good start to the day is going to be helpful in their brain function," Blackford says. "Every child needs to eat a meal before they even start at school."
Importance of Whole Foods
This study also emphasizes the importance of breakfast for children, even more so than for adults. The authors report how children's brains have a higher glucose metabolism, which means they can require more of a continuous glucose supply to fuel the brain. The study's authors also state how carbohydrate-rich, low-glycemic food for breakfast has been shown to affect cognitive performance positively.
Whiteson tells parents not to be too afraid of carbohydrates from whole grains, such as bread, rice, pasta and potatoes. These foods, according to Whiteson, are "very, very important for young brain function."
"Don't forget, [carbohydrates] releases energy, and your brain functions on sugar, which is a carbohydrate," Whiteson says.
Blackford recommends foods such as eggs, oatmeal or homemade muffins made with whole grains for breakfast. Generally, whole foods, like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, without added or refined sugars, are the way to go.
"There's been multiple studies that show a link between a diet that is high in refined sugar and those things that can impair brain function, including mood disorders like depression," Blackford says.
Blackford also recommends straying away from anything that has trans-fat and nitrates. Nitrates, according to Blackford, are commonly found in food that needs to be preserved in any way — like lunch meats.
"You can have a small amount of them and still be okay. The problem becomes if we rely on these kinds of foods that have these in them and kids are eating them every single day," Blackford says.
Lunch meats and other processed foods can also be high in sodium. As mentioned above, high salt and sodium intake can increase blood pressure, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping sodium intake under the daily requirement.
Along with limiting sodium and increasing fruit and vegetable intake, Blackford says each meal should include foods with protein. Whiteson recommends getting good quality proteins like fish, chicken and beef — or tofu and tempeh for vegetarians or vegans.
Blackford says snacks between meals and after school are also necessary to help sustain children. She again recommends that the best type of snacks are any kind of whole food like blueberries or apples with the skin, which naturally have a higher fiber content.
"People that get a good amount of fiber in their diet have a good, healthy gut. So, when it comes to having a regulated, healthy microbiome in your body, to good blood sugar regulation, fiber can help with all those things," Blackford says.
While unprocessed foods are better, sometimes pre-made, grab-and-go snacks are necessary. A good rule to follow when choosing a pre-made snack is to choose one with the least amount of ingredients, preferably less than three.
Foods with more than three ingredients won't be as helpful for brain function, Blackford explains.
Inspiring Better Food Choices
A common problem though that parents can struggle with is getting kids to eat healthier foods.
"Sometimes we have to bribe kids a little bit in order for them to eat some of these things because they might not be used to it," Blackford says. With vegetables, you can also provide some sort of dip to make the taste better, for example, yogurt — just double-check the sugar content first.
Whiteson recommends bringing kids to the grocery store to pick out fresh fruits and vegetables and then cutting them up as an activity. Afterward, storing these foods in the front of the fridge can increase the likelihood of a child grabbing that versus an unhealthy alternative.
Involving children in making meals and choosing snacks can be helpful, Whiteson says.
"When I involved my children in their school lunches, they were more likely to come home and say that they ate their lunch," she says. Kids can also have a better understanding of food, which can impact their food choices later, too.
Healthy snacks are important for brain fuel, and so is hydration.
"Our brains are made up of about 70% water, so we need to make sure we're feeding it enough water throughout the day too," says Blackford, recommending children take sips of water every 30 to 60 minutes.
Authors of one 2019 commentary journal article published in The Journal of Nutrition report how there's more and more evidence pointing to the importance of proper hydration on mood, cognition and school performance. Authors of this 2009 study report that "measures of attention and memory improved" for children ages seven to nine who were in school all day and drank additional water, compared to those who didn't drink additional water.
While water intake can depend on age and weight, kids should be drinking 30 to 40 ounces a day, and more if the child is active — like in sports, says Blackford. Other beverages that are non-caloric and unsweetened can be factored in too.
A healthy diet is vital for children and optimal brain function. Another study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health looked at intelligence quotient scores of 8.5-year-olds who, since the age of 3, had a "health conscious" diet. Their diet consisted of foods such as salad, rice, pasta and fruits. Their IQ scores were compared to children of the same age who consumed a more "processed" diet — foods high in fat and sugar. The children with the healthier diet had higher IQ scores.
When deciding what foods children should consume, it's better to move towards foods that can help brain function, says Blackford. Even if a family makes one change every few weeks, like adding a new fruit or vegetable, Blackford said these small changes add up and can make a difference in brain health.