Brain Food for Thought

Let's feed our children food that will nourish their brains, not harm them.

Brain food for thought

What's on your child's plate today?

It is my strong conviction that children deserve a healthy breakfast to start the school morning right and a healthy school lunch to fuel their growing and their learning. I have come to believe that nutrition plays a key role, by providing them with a critical physiological foundation to help them succeed in school. Behavior and academic performance are significantly affected by the quantity and quality of the foods we provide children during the school years.

Today in the United States, one in six children suffers from a disability that affects their behavior, memory, or ability to learn. We spend more than $80 billion each year to treat neurodevelopmental disorders. Diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) alone up are up 250 percent since 1990. How much of a role does modern food play in this increase?

Children's brains are built differently depending on what they are fed when they are rapidly growing. Healthy brains are about 60 percent structural fat (not like the flabby fat found elsewhere in the body). As the brain grows, it selects building blocks from among the fatty acids available in what the child eats. The most prevalent structural fat in the brain is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), one of the omega-3 fatty acids. DHA is also a major structural component of the retina of the eye. A large number of studies have suggested that low DHA levels are associated with problems with intelligence, vision, and behavior.

DHA is the most prevalent long chain fatty acid in human breast milk, which suggests that it's intended for babies to consume a lot of it. Studies have shown that babies who have not gotten DHA in their diets have significantly less of it in their brains than those who have. My point here is not about the superiority of breast milk, but that growing children quite literally are what they eat. When you think about this, you begin to feel differently about "cheap" food.

Iron is another nutrient that is essential to optimal brain function. Here's a very interesting study reported in the December 2004 Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine – the first to connect children's iron levels and ADHD.

Between March 2002 and June 2003, 110 children from the same school district in Paris, France were referred to a university hospital to be evaluated for school-related problems. Researchers analyzed blood samples from the 53 of these children who met the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, and from 27 of the children who did not. The average ferritin (iron) level in the non-ADHD kids was normal, but the average level in the children with ADHD was about half that of the other children. Fully 84 percent of the children with ADHD were iron deficient. And the lower the iron levels, the worse the ADHD symptoms – worse hyperactivity, worse oppositional behavior, and worse cognitive scores.

The stunning part of this study was that none of the children had iron levels low enough to indicate anemia. The iron deficiency was subtle enough that all tested normal on the hemoglobin or hematocrit blood tests used in doctors' offices to screen for iron problems. I suspect that inadequate iron in the diet is also affecting the attention, focus, and activity of many children who don't meet the full definition of ADHD.

When other researchers fed appropriate iron to children with ADHD, their test scores and ADHD symptoms improved.

Kids need more than isolated, individual nutrients to boost their brains and school performance. There are big-picture benefits to eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fiber.

Antioxidants include a large variety of compounds found in a large variety of whole foods. Antioxidants in foods have been linked to improved memory and brain function.

Even in the same food, antioxidant levels can vary depending on how the food is grown. Organic foods, on average, are about 30 percent higher in antioxidants than are their nonorganic counterparts. That means each organic serving may be packed with more valuable nutrients. Talk about extra credit!

Organophosphates are the most commonly used insecticides in conventional, chemical agriculture. These chemicals act as nerve agents, and have been linked to neurodevelopmental problems. Organically grown foods are produced without the use of toxic pesticides such as organophosphates. Choosing organic foods for children can immediately and significantly decrease their exposure to organophosphate pesticides. That's good protection for the developing brain — it's elementary.

Some are afraid that school children would have to eat unfamiliar or unappetizing foods in order to make a difference. Not so! A February 2006 study conducted by Dr. Chensheng Lu and colleagues demonstrated an immediate and dramatic ability to reduce organophosphate pesticide exposure by making simple diet changes in elementary school children.

The researchers conducted this study with typical suburban children. The elementary school kids began eating organic versions of whatever they were eating before. For example, if they typically ate apples, now they got organic apples. Only if there was a simple organic substitution available for what the kids were already eating, did they make a switch. The kids didn't have to learn to like any new foods. Within 24 hours, pesticide breakdown products found in the urine plummeted! They continued this way for five days, with clean urine samples morning and night. Then the kids went back to their typical, nonorganic diets, and immediately the pesticides returned.

Researchers at the University of Southampton studied over 1800 three-year-old children, some with and some without ADHD, some with and some without allergies. After initial behavioral testing, all of the children got one week of a diet without any artificial food colorings and without any chemical preservatives. The children's behavior measurably improved during this week. But was this from the extra attention, from eating more fruits and vegetables, or from the absence of the preservatives and artificial colors?

To answer this question, the researchers continued the diet, but gave the children disguised drinks containing either a mixture of artificial colorings and the preservative benzoate, or similarly colored drinks from natural food sources. The weeks that children got the hidden chemicals, their behavior was substantially worse. This held true whether or not they had been diagnosed with hyperactivity, and whether or not they had tested positive for allergies.

The Journal of Pediatrics reported that there is a more pronounced response to a glucose load in children than in adults. In children, hypoglycemia-like symptoms (including shakiness, sweating, and altered thinking and behavior) may occur at a blood sugar level that would not be considered hypoglycemic. The authors reason that the problem is not sugar, per se, but highly refined sugars and carbohydrates, which enter the bloodstream quickly and produce more rapid fluctuations in blood glucose levels.

Kids' brains are high-performance engines, and if we want them to do their best in school, we need to provide them with clean, high-quality fuel. For growing children this means a balanced diet of delicious whole foods, grown in a nutrition-enhancing way without toxic pesticides, and prepared in an appealing manner that also preserves nutrients.

Solid science has shown that food affects kids' memory, attention, and cognitive skills. Even whether or not they eat breakfast changes their test scores. What they eat, how their food is grown, and how their food is processed can all help their brains to operate at their very best. Let's give our kids the edge they deserve.


This essay was digested with permission from Organic Valley's Rootstock