Diet Tips to Boost School Performance
What your children eat could determine how well they do in school, how well they pay attention, learn, and even the grades they get. Here’s the scoop on how to feed kids so they have their best school year yet!
First off, the diets of most American kids are getting worse. A study from the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that one out of every two children eats less than a serving of fruit a day and 30% of children ages 2 to 18 eat less than one serving of vegetables a day. The #1 vegetable for kids is also the least nutritious – potatoes (typically fried). A study last month from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, found that it is no surprise why America’s teens are getting fat: only half of US teens get any physical activity on five or more days a week and fewer than one in three eat fruits and vegetables.
We can’t take these diet habits for granted, since how well our kids eat determines their mental and physical health both today and down the road, and their school performance, as well. In fact, numerous studies show that healthy diets based on real, not processed/fast foods, are associated with lean bodies, improved brain development and cognition, improved school performance, and better behavior patterns compared to kids chowing down on nutrient-poor diets.
Eating right starts with breakfast. Students who eat breakfast perform better on memory and recall tests compared to students who skip breakfast. Students who eat healthy breakfasts and lunches are more alert throughout the day and do better in school and on tests, according to experts at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. They also show greater attention and visual memory compared to breakfast skippers. If your child is a seasoned breakfast avoider, start eating breakfast, even if they aren’t hungry. It will take two to three weeks to reset the appetite clock, after that you should notice a gain in energy and mental power, especially if the meal is light and healthful. So, avoid the sugary cereals and ones filled with refined grains. Those pack on the pounds and undermine thinking. Instead, follow my 1,2,3 Rule for breakfast: 1. A whole grain, 2. A protein, and 3. At least 1 serving of a colorful fruit or veggie.
Second, think about the fat in your child’s diet. While the saturated fats in meat, processed foods, and fatty dairy foods like butter and cheese, clog blood vessels and undermine thinking, the right fats improve cognition. Your child’s brain is very greasy, but in a good way. More than 60% of it is fat. Unlike the lazy fat stored on the hips or belly, fat in the brain is a worker bee. It makes up the cell membranes that surround each cell and the insulation sheath around neurons that allows thoughts to travel fast from one cell to another. The more fluid and flexible those membranes, the faster your child reacts, the more he/she remembers, and the more creative and clever that child is.
That’s why the brain loves omega-3 fats. These are the most fluid of all fats. Your child’s body can’t make them, so is entirely dependent on choosing the grilled salmon not the cheeseburger for lunch. Nerve connections alone increase by almost a third by adding more omega-3s to the diet! An accumulating body of research, including a recent Oxford study, shows that the more omega-3s consumed, the more a child’s reading performance, behavior, and working memory improves.
You get the biggest bang for your buck with the omega-3 DHA. You’ll get the least results from the omega-3 fat, alpha linolenic acid or ALA, in flax, walnuts, soy, and other plants, which is great for the heart and circulation, and will help lower inflammation, but does nothing for boosting memory or lowering dementia risk. There is up to 30 times more DHA than EPA in tissues, and up to 97% of the omega-3s in the brain are DHA. The Oxford study found a 50% improvement in reading scores and improvements in behavior when kids consumed ample amounts of this omega-3. Other studies from the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University confirm these results. So, make sure your child gets at least 2 servings a week of fatty fish, such as salmon, use foods fortified with DHA, or have them take a supplement.
Next, let’s talk veggies. While most kids avoid vegetables like the plague, there isn’t anything more important in the diet than getting enough of the colorful ones. The brain consumes more oxygen than any other body tissue, which exposes it to a huge daily dose of oxygen fragments called free radicals. Free radicals are trouble makers, attacking, damaging, and destroying every brain cell in sight. The wear and tear after decades of free-radical attacks is thought to contribute to the gradual loss of memory and thinking associated with aging.
Fortunately, the body has an anti-free radical army comprised of the antioxidant nutrients, including vitamins C and E and beta carotene that deactivate these harmful oxygen fragments. Colorful produce is the very best source of these antioxidants, with not only vitamin C, but also more than 12,000 phytochemicals, most of which are antioxidants. The research overwhelmingly shows that the more color-rich produce your child eats, the better he/she thinks.
At Tufts University in Boston, animals fed diets enriched with extra produce, such as blueberries and spinach, performed best on memory tests throughout life. The same holds true for kids. Folks who eat the most broccoli, sweet potatoes, spinach, and other deep-colored produce, maintain the highest blood levels of antioxidants. They also score highest on memory tests, exhibit the best judgement and reasoning, maintain a youthful ability to learn new tasks, and react quickly.
Of course, there’s more to thinking clearly than just diet. Water is an overlooked factor in children’s health. The first symptom of dehydration is fatigue, including mental fatigue. Thirst is not always the best indicator of a child’s fluid needs, so make sure to tuck an extra water bottle into their lunch bag and encourage them to drink water, not soft drinks, throughout the day Common sense and research both remind us that daily exercise, getting enough sleep, leaving time in the day to dream, and a supportive, stress-free home is critical to your child’s school performance and health in general.
Just Do This Today
1. Include at least one, preferably two, servings of colorful fruits and/or vegetables at every meal and at least one serving at every snack you serve your child, such as blueberries and a glass of OJ at breakfast, a bag of baby carrots and an apple in the brown bag lunch, and steamed broccoli and sweet potato fries at dinner.
2. Scout out the grocery store for foods fortified with an algal-based omega-3 DHA (it will say “life’sDHA” on the label). Some examples include Mission Life Balance tortillas, Gold Circle Farm Eggs, Horizon milk with DHA, Silk soymilk with DHA, and some Rinaldi spaghetti sauces.
3. Try a 1,2,3 breakfast, such as 1. whole grain cereal (shredded wheat for example) with milk and dried tart cherries and a bowl of watermelon; 2. A whole grain pancake topped with strawberries and a glass of low-fat milk; or 3. Toasted whole grain bread topped with peanut butter and a sliced banana served with orange slices and a glass of milk.
Hot Off the Diet Press
1. They Haven’t a Clue: Most people who eat at fast-food restaurants are in serious denial about how many calories they consume, according to a study from Harvard Medical School. In this study, researchers surveyed 1,877 adults, 1,178 teenagers, and 330 school-aged children who ate at fast-food establishments, asking them to estimate the calories they consumed at their meals. The average calorie intake was 836 calories, 756 calories, and 733 calories, respectively. But, that’s not what the people estimated. “Teens underestimate the number of calories in their meals by as much as 34%, parents of school-age children by as much as 23%, and adults by as much as 20%,” says the lead researcher, Dr. Jason Block.
Block J, Condon S, Kleinman K, et al: Consumers’ estimation of calorie content of fast food restaurants. British Medical Journal 2-13;346: f2907.
2. The Most Important Meal of the Day: Are you one of the 25% of Americans that skips breakfast? If so, big mistake. According to a study from Harvard School of Public Health, that one little diet faux pax could cost you your life. Breakfast habits were assessed in a group of 26,902 men between the ages of 45- and 82 years. During the following 16 years, 1,527 cases of heart disease were diagnosed. Results showed that men who skipped breakfast were 27% more likely to suffer a heart attack or develop heart disease compared to those who ate breakfast. Breakfast skippers were 15% more apt to gain weight, 21% more apt to develop diabetes, and to have high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The study also found a 55% increased risk for heart disease in men who indulged in late-night snacking.
Cahill L, Chiuve S, Mekary R, et al: Prospective study of breakfast eating and incident coronary heart disease in a cohort of male US health professionals. Circulation 2013;128:337-343.
3. Fat Heads: Is that cheeseburger really worth losing your mind over? A study from Wake Forest School of Medicine compared diets and chemical analysis of cerebral spinal fluid in 20 healthy seniors and 27 seniors with beginning Alzheimer’s disease. They found that diets high in saturated fat rob the brain of an important chemical, called apolipoprotein E (ApoE) that helps clear amyloid beta proteins from the brain and protect against Alzheimer’s disease. Left unchecked, those amyloids form plaques that interfere with neuron function and are characteristic of Alzheimer’s. In their study, the researchers also found that people who ate diets high in saturated fat had higher levels of amyloid beta in their spinal fluid, while people on low-saturated fat diets had significantly lower levels of these harmful substances. Switching to a low-saturated-fat diet for even one month helped drop amyloid levels in cerebrospinal fluid.
Hanson A, Bayer-Carter J, Green P, et al: Effect of apolipoprotein E genotype and diet on apolipoprotein E lipidation and amyloid peptides. Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology 2013;June 17th.
Food & Mood Tip -Your Brain on Oxygen
Like the bumper on a car, your body “rusts” when exposed to oxygen. Free radicals are oxygen fragments inhaled in air pollution and tobacco smoke, consumed in fatty foods, and manufactured within the body during normal metabolic processes. Left unchecked, these oxygen fragments or oxidants, attack cell membranes and genetic code – a process called oxidation. While the bumper on an old jalopy turns crusty red and the Statue of Liberty’s copper turned green when oxidized, a human cell either dies or mutates to form a potential cancer cell. Free radicals contribute to all age-related diseases, from heart disease and cancer to cataracts and possibly osteoporosis.
The same oxidative processes that clog your arteries and cause cancerous changes in body cells also damage the delicate communication pathways in your brain. Minute by minute, day by day, year after year, decade upon decade, free radicals are attacking and damaging one brain cell after another until the cumulative damage results in memory loss, slowed reaction times, and reduced alertness.
The good news is – your body has an anti-free radical arsenal, called the antioxidants, that sweep up, deactivate, and prevent oxidants from damaging cells. Antioxidants also help keep the heart beating strong and protect the tiny blood vessels that transport nutrients to brain cells, keeping them elastic and free of “debris.” Since 20 percent of the heart’s output goes to the brain, all of these benefits mean improved blood flow and better thinking. The trick is to maintain an antioxidant arsenal equal to or better than the free-radical onslaught. And, guess what! The richest sources of antioxidants are colorful fruits and vegetables! Aim for at least eight servings a day, or two at every meal and one at every snack.
Eat Your Way to Sexy This Week–Berry Sexy
In France, strawberries are considered an aphrodisiac and are served at weddings. The antioxidant mix in berries is so powerful that they rank right along with salmon and greens as the most nutritious foods in the diet. A half cup of blueberries has the antioxidants of five apples. Phytonutrients, such as anthocyanins, resveratrol, ellagic acid, carotenoids, and polyphenols, protect healthy cells throughout the body, preventing aging from head to groin. They lower risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, vision loss, urinary tract infections, inflammation, erectile dysfunction, periodontal disease, and kidney stones. Ellagic acid in berries is a youth elixir for skin, increasing elastin fibers and inhibiting collagenase, an enzyme that otherwise breaks down collagen in the skin. Berries ability to protect your mind is so amazing that some call them “brain berries.” Berries also are rich in fiber, folate, vitamin C, and potassium.
How Much? One cup a day, most days of the week. The antioxidant power is directly proportional to the color, so select the darkest berries that are richly hued from skin to core. Choose fresh or plain frozen (make sure there is no sugar added), wild berries when possible, and preferably organic. No quick fix here. You can’t get any of the benefits of berries in a pill. In fact, one study found that of hundreds of berry supplements studied, about half had no active ingredients at all.
Mood-Boosting Recipe of the Week–Smoked Salmon Pizza with Dill & Lemon
2/3 cup fat-free sour cream
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill (or 3 teaspoons dried dill)
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 clove garlic, minced
pinch of red pepper flakes
1 13.8 ounce can refrigerated pizza crust package (such as Pillsbury Pizza Crust Classic, found in the dairy case)
1 cup thinly sliced red onion
6 ounces thinly sliced smoked salmon
1/4 cup peeled and thinly sliced cucumber
Coat a pizza pan or cookie sheet with cooking spray. Set aside. Heat oven to 425 degrees.
1. In a small bowl, thoroughly mix first 6 ingredients (sour cream through pepper). Set aside to let flavors blend.
2. Remove pizza dough from tube. Knead until smooth, roll into a ball, and spread on a round pizza pan or cookie sheet until 12″ round in diameter.
3. Sprinkle onion evenly over top and bake for 12 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool.
4. Spread sour cream mixture over pizza crust, top with salmon and cucumbers. Makes 6 servings.
Nutritional Information (per serving): 221 Calories; 13% fat (3.2 g total, < 1 g saturated), 132 mg omega-3s, 65% carbohydrate (33.7 g), 22% protein (12.2 g), 6.5 mg cholesterol, 1.7g fiber, 6.5 mg vitamin C, 0.5 mg vitamin E, 0.2 mg zinc, 1,057 mg sodium.
Answers to “Do You Know?” from last issue:
Are calories from fat more fattening than calories from carbohydrates and protein?
Yes, but that’s no reason to switch to a no-fat diet. Dietary fat is easily converted into body fat, costing the body as little as 3% of its calories to make the switch, while it takes up to 23% of the calories in carbs and protein to convert them into fat for storage. Dietary fat is more readily stored as body fat, if only because the body must work harder to convert carbohydrates and protein to fat, while dietary fat can be stored as is. That increased work equates to a slight loss of calories. The key word here is “excess.” There is no evidence that dietary fat is stored in any greater amount than carbs or protein if you are balancing calories in with calories out. It is overeating that gets us into trouble, and it is much easier to overeat fatty foods, since they are such concentrated sources of calories.
Should you cut calories or fat to lose weight?
Your best bet is to cut both. It is a lot easier to restrict calories when you cut fat, while cutting fat only aids in weight loss if it is accompanied by a drop in calories. The National Weight Control Registry – an ongoing project at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Colorado – is brimming with thousands of success stories from people who have maintained a 30-pound or more weight loss for more than one year. The Registry shows that successful dieters lose the weight and keep it off by limiting calories to about 1,300 a day and fat to about 24% of calories.
Do You Know?
Do calories from saturated fat take longer to burn than calories from unsaturated fats?
Are empty and hidden calories the same thing?
Check next week for the answers….
I got caught in the label-lingo web the other day. I was at the freezer case. I pulled out a Marie Callender’s chicken pot pie and was surprised that it had only 380 calories. Wow. That’s not bad! Oh wait. Then, I did a double check and realized what I assumed was a one-serving package actually was being sold as two servings. Eat the entire pot pie (I mean, who wouldn’t?!) and you downed 760 calories, 42 grams of fat (10 1 /2 teaspoons), and almost an entire day’s allotment for saturated fat and sodium! Just goes to show, no matter how label savvy you think you are, always drop the assumptions and check the back label!
Food Finds/Food Fails
1. Quaker Perfect Portions: You probably already know how good oatmeal is for you. It’s special fiber, called beta glucan, lowers blood sugar and cholesterol levels, so is a must for anyone who cares about lowering their risk for diabetes and heart disease. Perfect Portions is flavored (Maple and Cinnamon), but has no added sugar, so you can add as little or as much as you want at home. And, you decide the portion, rather than it being decided for you by products that come in individual dinky packets. A suggested serving supplies 4 grams of fiber, 0 grams of sugar, and a half gram of saturated fat. Cook in nonfat or 1% low-fat milk and top with dried fruit and you may not even need to add sugar!
2. Orlando Vanilla Extract: I am a vanilla connoisseur. You name the brand, I’ve tried it. And, this vanilla extract is the very best I’ve ever used. I guarantee your cookies, pies, cakes, eggnog, whatever will come out yummier and you’ll need less sugar as a result. If you can’t find it at your local health food store, then order on line at: http://orlandomx.com/index_
1. Spinach pasta: What could be better than to meet your vegetable quota by eating carbs?! Too bad there is so little spinach in spinach pasta that the label says a hefty portion contains no vitamin A, also a red flag there’s little of the healthy phytochemicals that have made spinach famous, like lutein to protect your eyes.
Instead choose: Toss thawed and drained chopped spinach into pasta (preferably pasta that is at least half whole grain) or pasta sauces. A half cup serving will supply 100% of your daily need for vitamin A and 25% of your requirement for folate.
2. Bran muffins: Bran muffins are right up there with soymilk as a symbol of health food. However, ounce for ounce, the only advantage the bran muffin holds over a croissant is that it is higher in fiber. Most coffee shop or bakery muffins average about 4 to 6 ounces, 350 to 500 calories, and 15 to 20 grams of fat, with a hefty dose of artery-clogging bad fat throw in for good measure. A tell-tale sign a muffin is particularly high in fat is if it leaves a grease slick on your fingers or napkin, and an oily feel in your mouth.
The Daily Menu
Put know how into practice with this simple, nutritious meal plan. Eliminate the snacks if you want to cut additional calories. And, with all the menus in my newsletter, feel free to tweak to your food preferences and choices.
2/3 cup oatmeal cooked in 1 cup 1% low-fat milk and topped with 2 Tbsp. toasted wheat germ, 2 Tbsp. raisins, and 2 Tbsp. chopped walnuts
1 cup orange juice
1 cup nonfat, plain yogurt mixed with: 2 Tbsp. chopped dates and 1 Tbsp. chopped almonds
Iced green tea or water
1 serving Smoked Salmon Pizza with Dill & Lemon
2 medium tomatoes, sliced and topped with: 2 minced garlic, 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil, 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
Sparkling water with lemon or herb tea
1 cup nonfat milk blended with 1 tsp. nutmeg, 1 tsp. honey, and 1 ice cube
4 ounces roast chicken breast (stuff chicken with fresh rosemary and onions before roasting)
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4″ diagonals, cooked in 1 tsp. olive oil and 1/3 cup orange juice until tender. In a small bowl, mix until smooth ½ tsp. cornstarch, 1/4 tsp. ground ginger, pinch of nutmeg, and 3 Tbsp. water. Add ginger mixture to carrots and stir over medium heat until sauce thickens. Sprinkle with 2 tsp. chopped chives and a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional).
1 cup steamed Brussels sprouts
1 cup mashed parsnips topped with 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
Sparkling water with lime juice
2 cups frozen grapes
Nutritional Information: 1,943 calories, 23% fat (51 grams), 57% carbohydrate, 20% protein, 44 grams fiber, 1,301 milligrams calcium.