Kids are notorious for short attention spans; one minute they're totally engrossed in a task, and the next they're ready for something new.
Does your kid need help paying attention or remembering things at school? Mind boosters to the rescue! Building your brainpower with "super" foods is really important—how else could your body create brain cells and nerve pathways? You probably feed your child food with calcium to help make strong bones, but her brain—and yours—need fuel as well.
Believe it or not, the brain is made largely of fat—precisely, fatty acids. The membranes of neurons, or brain cells, are made of a double layer of fatty acids. Additionally, you have chemicals moving around in your brain, carrying out important tasks. These brain chemicals are called neurotransmitters, and they play key roles in your focus, mental energy, memory and mood. Certain foods can help build neurotransmitters as well as provide enough raw materials for your brain to create and protect neurons.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. These "essential" acids keep the parts of your kid's brain in good repair, and should be at the top of your dietary priorities list. If your wiring is faulty, your signals can get lost or crossed! Found in cold-water fish like salmon and sardines, walnuts, flax seeds and olive oil, omega-3 acids are considered essential because your body can't produce them on its own; you must eat dishes that contain them. A 2012 University of Alberta study found that these fatty acids are crucial for brain development and cognitive function, in everyone from newborns to senior citizens. So, your kid wrinkles her nose at fish or walnuts? Don't worry! There are plenty of non-fishy, chewable omega-3 supplements on the market. Follow doctor advice and/or product instructions for dosage.
- Phenylalanine. Did you know that beets, eggs, almonds, soybeans and grains are mind boosters? These brain-friendly dishes contain phenylalanine, an amino acid that's extremely important for producing dopamine, an organic chemical that helps with focus and memory. Without enough dopamine, your kids might be apathetic, unable to center on a task or remember what you told them to do. To help her stay alert, toss some almonds, soy beans or healthy grains to her lunchbox every day.
- Tryptophan. Yes, this is the tryptophan that you get from eating turkey, but it doesn't necessarily put you to sleep. In fact, it has to go several steps before it can be converted into melatonin, the sleep hormone. Before that, tryptophan converts into serotonin, a neurotransmitter that keeps your mood in check and helps you stay calm. If you're looking for a solution for Monday morning crankiness, irritability or anxiety—all emotions that can hinder academic performance—nosh on tryptophan-heavy bananas, yogurt, milk, cheese, eggs and meat.
- Tyrosine. Another important amino acid for attention, tyrosine helps to build nor-epinephrine, also called nor-adrenaline. Nor-epinephrine is another neurotransmitter that provides energy and mental clarity. When you want to help your child focus on studying for that upcoming exam, think beans! Legumes contain this amino acid, as does milk, meat and fish.
- Choline. Found in eggs and soybeans, choline is a building block for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, a critical part of memory function. Acetylcholine also plays a large part in the brain-muscle connection. Feeding your little one foods with choline can help to boost acetylcholine levels, potentially improving her memory and mind-body connection.
- Antioxidants. Boosters for the mind and body, antioxidants are all-around powerhouses that are desperately needed to prevent free radicals, molecules that are responsible for damaging tissue, aging and possibly even disease. Free radicals are produced as byproducts during digestion, and are also caused by environmental factors such as cigarette smoke, stress, radiation, drugs and processed foods. Antioxidants like vitamins C, E and A are essential to protect your body from free radicals. Blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, blackberries raspberries, artichokes and legumes all keep free radicals at bay and allow your little learner's mind to stay sharp and healthy.
- ALA (alpha lipoic acid). This fatty acid is found in every cell of the body. ALA works to turn glucose, or simple sugar, into cell energy and increase the production of an important substance known as glutathione. Glutathione is part of the body's filtering system; it rids the body of harmful, foreign chemicals, such as drugs and pollutants. Spinach, broccoli, peas and brussels sprouts contain ALA, but only in small amounts. Talk to your pediatrician about an ALA supplement to help your kid when she hits the books.
Despite the fact that many of nutrients are available in supplement form, the best way to take them in is through whole foods. By eating for your brain, says the Mayo Clinic, you're getting other fundamental nutrients. Healthy fiber, micronutrients and protective substances that have a variety of health benefits aren't usually found in a pill. And by making sure your child is satiated and comfortable, you'll stave off cravings for sugary snack foods.
If your child's extremely picky about what goes on her plate, talk to your pediatrician about supplementing her diet with vitamins. It's critical that you understand the correct dosage for your little one, since you're giving her a more concentrated dose that isn't mixed in with anything else.
Help your child's body maintain balance and support her developing brain; serve up nutrient-rich meals, talk to her about nutrition and explain why it's important. Before long, she may be begging to finish her vegetables!