…who they socialise with, their family environment, the teaching they receive, their attitude, exercise and emotions – and also, what they eat. As parents, we can’t control all of these factors – but we can help our kids by providing the best nutrition possible.
When your child has a thought, or stores or retrieves a memory, a messenger chemical is sent from one nerve to another in the brain. These messengers are specific chemicals called ‘neurotransmitters’ and they are vital to your child’s mental performance, not only in the classroom, but in other situations too.
The proper functioning of these messengers depends on different supporting vitamins and minerals as well as fatty acids and phospholipids – and a constant supply of energy too. The brain specifically uses glucose as its energy source, so we need to make sure our children have enough of it to keep them going throughout the day.
To keep our kids’ brains sharp, we need to give them all the necessary ingredients to make this happen: essential fats, protein, a range of vitamins and minerals, and even special fats called phospholipids. Our comprehensive guide to kids’ nutrition will help your children maximise their chances of fulfilling their potential at school, and beyond!
Protein – the building blocks of your child’s thoughts and memories
Protein is vital to help your child’s brain create thoughts and store and retrieve memories. Therefore you should aim to have your kids eat protein with every meal. The amount consumed depends on the quality of the protein and how accessible it is to the body.
Meat and fish are great sources of protein as they contain the full range of amino acids that your child needs. Fish and organic, grass-fed or wild meat are higher in essential fats – so if you have the budget, consider going organic!
Vegetarianism is not uncommon among children in the UK. If your child doesn’t eat animal products, aim to give them a wide range of protein-rich beans and pulses, combined with brown grains, like rice. Quinoa is also a good, complete source of protein for vegetarian kids.
Here are some good swaps for common foods to help you increase your child’s protein intake:
We all aim to give our children a balanced diet rich in fresh food, just as we try to limit their intake of junk food – but we all know it is not easy!
A good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement, while never a substitute for a balanced diet, can be a good insurance policy for your kids’ health. Just hand it over with breakfast, so you can be sure they take it.
Research has shown that diets lacking in key nutrients can adversely affect performance at school1 - although mainly in those children thought to be nutritionally lacking. The main vitamins and minerals that must be included to at least 100% of RNI are: B vitamins (always supplement as a complex), Folic acid, Calcium and Magnesium, Vitamin C, Manganese and Zinc2.
According to the latest research, fish makes kids more brainy! Every time they receive a thought or piece of information, their brains’ messengers are received by receptors made up entirely of essential fatty acids. In fact, if you dried out your brain, 60% of its weight would be made up of essential fat3!
Oily fish are the best source of Omega-3 fats, which are fundamental to brain function. In fact, research has shown people who do not eat enough essential fats have been able to improve their academic performance, by supplementing with Omega-34.
So how much is enough? The UK Scientific Advisory Committee recommends a minimum of 2 portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily. Oily fish include sardines, herrings, mackerel and salmon. You can also buy Omega-3 rich eggs.
If your child is vegetarian, you can opt to give them flaxseeds (better ground up) and hemp seeds, which are both good sources of Omega-3.
Alternatively, if you feel you are unlikely to achieve these recommendations, you can supplement with a good quality fish oil or essential fat supplement.
Another specific form of fats that are in high concentration in the brain, are phospholipids. The best source of these in our diets is eggs – so get your kids to start the day with an egg, preferably an Omega-3 rich, free range version! They make a great protein filled breakfast and help to maintain sugar balance for sustained concentration.
We all know that feeling of a sugar high or caffeine hit, and the inevitable crash afterwards.
It is certainly not very helpful for our concentration or mood, and it’s not great for our kids’ moods either!
A sugar rush puts your child’s brain on a rollercoaster ride that robs them of their mental energy and focus in the classroom. Not only can this limit their ability to learn, it can also contribute to hyperactivity and disruptive behaviour.
It should be noted that there has been a body of evidence demonstrating that children’s classroom performance is improved by a ‘good breakfast’4. A good breakfast of whole grains or eggs in effect breaks low blood sugar that results from an overnight fast.
It has been well documented in the press that specific additives and preservatives can have an impact on concentration and mental performance. Equally some foods just do not agree with some people. If your child suffers from “brain fog”, it may in fact be due to food intolerance. Ask your child to keep a note of what they have eaten and when, should such symptoms show.
It is essential that you encourage your kids to consistently drink small glasses of water throughout the day (up to 1 ½ litres, unless exercising strenuously or there is a heat wave). Many sweet, fizzy and caffeine- laden ‘energy’ drinks dehydrate the body and should be avoided. Inadequate hydration has also been linked to poor brain function3.
Unlike medicines, which typically work immediately, improving nutrition and removing bad eating habits can take a bit of time to impact your child’s health and the way they feel. Therefore the sooner you start making positive changes, the better!
Even if your child is older and already a bit set in their ways, significant dietary changes are still possible. Children of all ages are capable of forming new habits, in most cases much more easily than adults can! Sometimes all they need is a bit of prod in the right direction from mum or dad.
One important contribution in helping to make a difference to the way your child performs at school is through a healthy, balanced diet, as part of a whole supportive picture. There is good science to back it up and it is only logical – we all know it!
Changing eating habits is also an opportunity for the whole family become more focussed, improve concentration and enjoy better mental and physical wellbeing. So join in and make it a family project - the tips above will work just as well for parents as for children!
Sit down at meal times and support your kids not only with the food they eat, but by talking to them about how they are getting on at school. Kids all need support from their parents to become better learners, and who knows, they might be able to teach you a thing or two as well!
For further reading, reference 2 is especially accessible and informative.