Maximizing Learning Potential and Brain Function with Nutrition
The back-to-school period is the perfect time of year to make smart dietary changes that are just as much about fueling the mind and promoting learning as about having a strong, energetic body. Helping our brains be their best this school year means eating real food, mostly plants, not processed packaged fast food and minimizing exposure to environmental toxins. Chemicals like pesticides, herbicides, BPA and PCBs have been shown to affect learning and brain development especially in children. Enough evidence showing the effects of exposure (particularly in children) to several key environmental chemicals has crossed my desk in recent years to give me concern. Here’s how to fuel the brain right:
Fuel the Brain with Key Foods
We know that short-term learning and long-term brain function can be significantly impacted by the foods we eat. This is why choosing whole unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains are so important.
The human brain is approximately 60% fat. The types of fats we obtain through diet are key players in how it operates and ages. Maximize brain function by avoiding saturated fats from animal products like bacon, butter and red meat and get healthy fats from chia seeds, flax seeds, avocado, nuts and small amounts of plant oils.
Protein is often considered brain food, but it’s important to know what sources of protein are actually brain protective. Dr. Neal Barnard’s book Power Foods for the Brain1 cites numerous studies which found plant-based diets that get proteins from beans, nuts, seeds, vegetables and whole grains to be more protective against memory loss, Alzheimer’s and dementia than the typical meat and dairy laden Western diet.
Food choices have both short and long-term consequences on the brain. For the best short-term function before a test or important performance, avoid sugar, eat moderate protein from beans, seeds, nuts, soy and whole grains, and don’t go overboard on caffeine. Have a bowl of three-bean chili and rice the night before a big test and eat cooked rolled oats with walnuts and blueberries the morning of the test. Blueberries have a reputation for boosting memory and short-term learning.
Try this Brain-Boosting Sorbet for dessert the night before a big test (or even for breakfast!) The fresh fruit has antioxidants to combat oxidative stress on brain cells. The nuts and chia seeds have protein, vitamin E (protective against Alzheimer’s), essential omega-3 fatty acids, iron and calcium. The Swiss chard has phytonutrients, antioxidants, iron and calcium in just the right amount. The chia seeds are nutrient powerhouses and will naturally thicken the mixture to form a delightfully smooth sorbet like texture. And finally, there are no added or refined sugars.
Blend the following ingredients well:
- 2 cups of organic frozen blueberries, strawberries, mango and pineapple
- 2 Tbs of walnuts
- 2 Tbs of chia seeds
- 2 Tbs of almond milk
- 3 large leaves of Swiss chard (or rainbow chard)
Top 10 Ideas for a Healthier School Year:
1) Never, never, never skip breakfast (no matter how early the bus is). Cook some oatmeal on the stove while getting dressed and finish it off with 1-2 Tbs of flax seeds.
2) Make your own bars, like an oatbar or fruit and nut bar. Check online for recipes with whole food ingredients like dried fruit, oats, nuts, nut butter and natural sweeteners like honey. Freeze the bars for quick snacks or breakfasts.
3) Resist the temptation to get fast food before dance class. Plan out and bring a pre-dance snack from home or talk to your studio director about having smart snacks onsite like natural bars or microwavable soups or oatmeal.
4) Visit a local farmer’s market and enjoy discovering where your food comes from.
5) Buy organic. Fresh is best, but frozen is fine for busy evening meals.
6) Avoid canned foods due to Bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical found in plastics, liners of canned foods and some paper products. It is a neuroendocrine disruptor that can affect learning.
7) Don’t buy products with ingredients on the food label that you can’t pronounce or recognize as food. Check labels for preservatives, food colorings, high fructose corn syrup and dough conditioners.
8) Don’t spray your yard with chemicals. Better yet, plant a garden or wildflowers.
9) Start a garden no matter how small. Even a sunny window can host herbs.
10) Kids eat more veggies when they are involved in growing them.
Source: Barnard, Neal D. Power Foods for the Brain: An effective 3 step plan to protect your mind and strengthen your memory. Hachette Book Group 2013.