10 Brain Foods to Keep Children Charged and Alert

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Did you know that foods with omega-3 fatty acids help maintain memory, focus and mood? Also, foods with vitamin C may improve IQ scores, and iron-rich foods carry oxygen to the brain. Complex carbohydrates offer long-lasting energy, and zinc aids with memory.

Research shows that many children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are lacking the nutrients omega-3 and -6, vitamins B and C, chromium, zinc and magnesium. Sugar can prevent certain nutrients from being absorbed, and caffeine depletes the body of vitamin B, zinc, potassium, calcium and iron, all of which aid cognitive performance.

“Students are entering classrooms lacking the nutritional energy to be successful in school,” says Cathie Broocks, director of admissions at Charlotte Christian School and author of “Pyramids, Bridges, and Brains: The Connection Between Nutrition and Learning.” “The partnership between parents and schools on this issue is vital!”

Here is a list of 10 brain foods to keep children charged and alert.

1. Beans

Choose black, kidney, pinto, navy, fava or lima beans; edamame; chickpeas; or black-eyed peas. A cup of cooked beans provides 50 percent of the recommended daily value of fiber and 8 percent of the calcium that’s recommended per day. They also come with iron, protein, complex carbohydrates and potassium. Black beans carry the most fiber, and kidney beans and pintos have omega-3 fatty acids.

Idea: Serve breakfast burritos that combine whole wheat tortillas, eggs and black beans.

2. Berries

The more intense the color, the better the berry. They contain fiber and antioxidants, and they have vitamin C, which aids the immune system, helps the body absorb iron and may even improve IQ.

Idea: Add berries in whole grain pancakes or oatmeal, or toss them in a blender with yogurt, honey and some wheat germ for a perfect smoothie.

3. Eggs

A single large egg contains 13 percent of the recommended daily value of protein and offers vitamins A and B, iron, zinc and choline, which aids in memory development. Eggs also supply amino acids that are needed to build neurotransmitters – the brain’s messengers.

Idea: An omelet filled with veggies and low-fat meat is a fun way for a child to eat a nutrient-packed breakfast.

4. Leafy greens

Dark green, leafy vegetables are possibly the most nutrient-dense foods, full of iron; calcium; potassium; magnesium; vitamins A, K, C, E and B; beta carotene; and folate. Teen girls should have three cups of leafy greens per week, or about one-half cup per day. Excellent options include spinach, kale, arugula and romaine lettuce.

Idea: Toss leafy greens in a wrap, soup or stir-fry.

5. Lean beef

Remember ZIP – zinc, iron and protein. Lean beef is an excellent source of these nutrients. Iron deficiency is common among children and teens and can lead to anemia, which decreases a child’s energy levels. Also, iron deficiencies have been linked to a decrease in academic performance. Iron can be found in many foods, but the kind found in meat is most easily absorbed by the body.

Idea: Make mini-meatloaves in muffin tins and top with some marinara sauce.

6. Nuts and seeds

Pumpkin seeds – high in zinc, manganese, magnesium and omega-3 and -6 fatty acids – are among the most nutritious seeds to eat. They’re also known to have a calming effect. Nuts have fiber, vitamins E and B, iron, magnesium, calcium and selenium, which is an antioxidant that protects the brain from metals, such as those in pipes or dental fillings.

Idea: Grind seeds or nuts in a coffee grinder and sprinkle over regular cereal, or mix in oatmeal or a homemade fruit smoothie.

7. Oats

Think “grain for the brain.” Studies on children ages 6-11 found that those who ate oatmeal for breakfast performed better on cognitive tasks requiring memory and attention than those who ate cold cereal or no breakfast. Oats have higher concentrations of protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese and vitamin E than other commonly eaten grains. An instant oatmeal packet is convenient, but it can be loaded with added sugar. Steel-cut oats are a better choice.

Idea: Add berries for a natural sweetener to steel-cut oats.

8. Pumpkins and sweet potatoes

These foods are rich in antioxidants, beta carotene, vitamins B6 and C, manganese, fiber, iron and potassium. Sweet potatoes stabilize blood sugar levels, thus keeping hunger pangs at bay and moods balanced for optimal learning.

Idea: Pumpkin and sweet potatoes can be used to make pancakes, bread and muffins. Baked sweet potato fries are also a kid pleaser.

9. Whole grains

Simple carbohydrates quickly turn to sugars in the body, but complex carbohydrates, found in whole grains, are the body’s main source of energy. Whole grains contain fiber, iron and vitamin B. Be sure that your wheat bread is labeled as 100 percent whole wheat or whole grain.

Idea: Make the switch from white to wheat by making sandwiches with one slice of each kind of bread, or mixing whole wheat and regular pasta together.

10. Yogurt

Yogurt is full of calcium, potassium, vitamins A and D, protein and carbohydrates. Children and teens need 10 times more vitamin D in dairy than adults do. Greek yogurt is a healthier choice than traditional flavored yogurt because it has more protein and less sugar while still tasting great.

Idea: Buy plain yogurt and add a small amount of honey (for children over 12 months) or agave nectar for a natural sweetener.

Lisa Hassell lives in Indian Trail and is a stay-at-home mom to 2-year-old Jacob, who loves bell peppers and M&M candies almost equally.