If a person’s diet affects the condition of his heart, his risk of cancer and the size of his body, is it any surprise that what we eat affects our brains, too?
The brain is a highly complex and busy organ that uses 20 percent of the body’s energy just to function. More and more studies are proving that the old adage, “what goes in must come out” is especially true for the brain.
That means children whose young, growing minds are bathed in diets full of refined flours, concentrated sugars and chemical additives are at an academic and intellectual disadvantage, while those students eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, high in fiber and low in sugar are more likely to reach their academic potential.
A healthy diet produces a smarter child.
Baby’s First Brain Food
A newborn baby’s brain grows so rapidly that it almost triples in size during the first year of life, and the best food to fuel that growth is breast milk. That’s because a healthy brain is composed of 60 percent structural fat, mostly in the form of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), one of the omega-3 fatty acids. Alan Greene, M.D., author of Raising Baby Green (Jossey-Bass; $16.95) says, “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, and a large number of studies have suggested that low DHA levels are associated with problems with intelligence, vision and behavior.â€
What about the DHA found in some formulas? “That’s artificially added instead of naturally created,” explains Jane Krenshaw, R.N., coordinator for Lactation Services at Centennial Hospital in Nashville. “Breast milk is more than the sum of its parts,” she says. “Scientists just discovered that mother’s milk contains three kinds of stem cells which repair and regenerate the body’s other cells. It also contains numerous hormones and enzymes not found in formula.â€
Recent research supports this link between breast milk and intelligence. The largest randomized study of breastfeeding ever conducted followed 14,000 children during the course of six-and-a-half years. As reported in the May 2008 edition of Archives of General Psychiatry, children who were breastfed longer scored an average of seven-and-a-half points higher on verbal intelligence, almost three points higher on nonverbal intelligence and nearly six points higher in overall intelligence on standard IQ tests.
Researcher Michael S. Kramer, M.D., professor of pediatrics, epidemiology and biostatistics at the McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montreal says, “Our study provides the strongest evidence to date that prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding makes kids smarter.â€
Another study of 3,253 Danish men and women published in the May 2002 Journal of the American Medical Association showed that babies who were breastfed for seven to nine months scored an average of six points higher on IQ tests than those who nursed for less than one month.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively for their first six months. According to an AAP policy statement, “Breastfeeding is the optimal form of nutrition for infants.â€
Good Food Equals Good Grades
The “fresh and natural is best” philosophy holds true for children eating solid food, too. Several major studies in the last two decades, involving nearly one million children across multiple states, show those children’s academic performance and ability to concentrate improve tremendously when artificial colors and ingredients were removed from their school lunch programs.
Alan C. Logan, M.D., a faculty member of Harvard’s School of Continuing Medical Education and author of The Brain Diet (Cumberland House Publishing; $22.95) explains how chemicals in food negatively impact learning. “When healthy kids without attention deficit disorders ingest benzoids, like those found in food dyes, they show a marked increase in hyperactivity.
They can’t focus, so they can’t learn. They’re more apt to misbehave,” he says. “The exact reason is unknown, but it’s thought these chemicals cross the blood brain barrier and throw off neurotransmission from brain cell to brain cell.” When children eat food with artificial ingredients, they can’t think straight.
And the proof is in the pudding.
In 1979, New York City public schools greatly reduced the amount of sugar in its school foods and banned two synthetic food colorings. One year later their achievement test scores rose eight points. The next year all artificial flavors and colors were banned from NYC school foods and test scores soared another eight points.
“This study involved 800,000 students at all grade levels in 803 schools representing every demographic profile,” says lead researcher Alexander G. Schauss, Ph.D., member of the National Institute of Health and author of Feed My Brain: Eating to Excel (Simon & Schuster; $16.95). “We significantly increased the nutritional density and fiber levels of the lunch meals and eliminated â€˜empty nutrient’ foods such as sugar, unfortified wheat flour, sodas and most desserts.” During a four-year period, test scores across 803 public schools rose 15.7 percent.
The only change was an improvement in the students’ diet.
The Nutrition Honor Roll
So what foods make the grade and which ones should be expelled from children’s diets?
Logan says to eliminate soda, juice pouches and any “non-nutrient beverage” such as fruit flavored drinks masquerading as juice. Toss out processed baked goods like white bread, cookies, muffins and frozen waffles. “These products are high in sugar and refined flour,” he explains. “They’ll cause an immediate spike in blood sugar that leads to a crash that will impact learning.â€
Because they’ve been shown to cause hyperactivity in normal, healthy kids, Logan says to avoid any foods with artificial colors. A child that can’t pay attention won’t succeed in school, he says.
Avoid trans fats when possible. Not only do they lead to heart disease, they impact memory, too.
Instead of pre-packaged foods, kids should fill up on the recommended five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables. Logan also stresses the importance of whole grains like those in brown rice and 100-percent whole-wheat bread since only three-and-a-half percent of most children’s caloric intake is in the form of whole grains relative to processed grains. “Don’t be fooled by the whole grain logo on the box,” he warns.
That claim shows up on cookie packages and sugary breakfast cereals because any product with just a dusting of whole wheat added in can be listed as “whole grain.” Look for products with “100-percent whole grain” instead. “When you process away the grain, you take away B vitamins that aid learning and affect mood and depression,” Logan explains. “The fiber in whole grains stabilizes blood sugars which keeps kids cognitive for longer periods and affects academic performance.â€
For healthy, active brain cells, most kids need to increase their omega-3 fatty acid intake by eating fish three times a week or including canola oil, ground flaxseeds, walnuts or walnut oil to their diets while reducing corn, safflower, sunflower and soybean oils. Logan says that if your child isn’t a seafood lover, a fish oil supplement works just as well to support brain health.
Vitamins – A Nutritional Safety Net
Did you know that just four foods – canned tomatoes, onions, iceberg lettuce and frozen potatoes – make up 50 percent of most Americans’ vegetable intake? “We live in nutritional denial,” says Logan. Is it any wonder that children who regularly take a multi-vitamin to fill in those nutritional gaps score higher on intelligence tests?
In a 1991 study, the IQ scores of 47 six-year-olds taking vitamin supplements for several weeks increased by nearly eight points, while kids who took a placebo showed no difference.
In another 1991 study, Stephen Schoenthaler, Ph.D., a professor at California State University, tested the effects of vitamin supplements on 615 school children in Phoenix, Ariz. Kids taking the vitamins showed an average IQ gain of four points, while some students gained as many as 15 IQ points. To put it in perspective, the average IQ of someone in vocational school is 100, while the average IQ of someone obtaining an advanced graduate degree is 115.
Logan says, “Approximately 80 percent of the studies conducted through 2002 that looked at the link between vitamins and IQ, showed a positive link. A vitamin is a nutritional insurance policy.â€
Food for Thought
While it’s easier to hand over prepackaged foods or send a child to school with lunch money and hope they choose green beans instead of fries, the research clearly shows that valedictorians eat their veggies, and parents would be wise to spend as much time ensuring their children eat healthy foods as they do helping them with homework or driving them to extra-curricular activities.
Experts like Greene agree, “I have come to believe that nutrition plays a key role, not only in children’s short and long term health, but also by providing them with a critical physiological foundation to help them succeed in school. Behavior and academic performance are affected by the quality of the foods we provide children during the school years.â€
Deborah Bohn is a local freelance writer and mom.