When a child is struggling in school there are a lot of possible causes. It's important to consider them all. Nutrition and the foods we eat is an important place to start. It only makes sense that what we feed our brain affects its performance. Just as a performance athlete needs healthy food, so does a performance brain. Diet is closely related to brain health. You are what you eat. It's important to boost brain health with good food. Specific foods boost brain health, but others are bad for our brain. They can even cause learning disabilities. The foods you eat affect your brain in many ways. Some will make you feel tired after lunch. Others affect your sleep. Some can even be considered power foods for the brain. Which are you feeding your child?
Sarah had been trying to help her son Jake for years. Once Jake had hit third grade she noticed he seemed to be struggling in school, particularly in reading and writing. Over the next few years, his grades started to drop. Over time it got worse. It was clear that something wasn't right.
After more bad report cards she went to his teachers and asked for help. Extra homework was given and when that didn’t help a well-meaning friend suggested she request an IEP. She knew that that should be a last resort and wanted to try out other options first.
Sarah was determined to help her son succeed. And succeed in regular classes. So, she went to work. She spent countless hours researching different strategies and techniques to improve Jake's reading and writing skills. She's one determined lady, and she was not going to let her son be held back. She tried every strategy, every technique, every tutor, every program out there. But you know what? None of it worked. Jake's grades were still the same. And he just couldn’t seem to concentrate.
Sarah was feeling pretty frustrated and desperate. But she is not the type to give up. So she started thinking outside the box. And what she finally discovered was a game-changer.
After researching the link between nutrition and brain function. She thought “Could Jake’s diet affect his brain, and make it hard for him to focus? Could his food choices lead to poor grades?”
So she decided to try a few things out.
Determined to give her son the best chance possible, Sarah first made the decision to remove fast food and sugar from Jake's diet. It was a difficult transition for both of them, but Sarah was determined to see it through.
To her surprise, after just a few weeks, Jake's teacher noticed a difference. There was an improvement in his focus and concentration. And he seemed more pleasant in class.
Sarah noticed it too. She had still been doing remediation exercises with Jake at home, and even that seemed to be going better.
So, she thought, if just those few changes helped. Could she do more? And she did. Over the next few months, she educated herself on what foods were bad for the brain and what foods were good. She also researched other questions like. Should they supplement? Were there dangers?
And one by one she implemented the changes she learned about. Observing along the way. Keeping track of changes.
Did she succeed? You bet. Jake was finally able to catch up with his classmates and even surpassed many of them. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.
What changes did she make? Let’s cover them all. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
First, let’s talk about fast food. Since that was a biggie.
Aaah those tasty nuggets, Big Macs, Whoppers with cheese, Crispy chicken, fries, chicken fries, Mcrib Sandwiches
Er nevermind, you can keep your mcrib sandwiches.
As a matter of fact, if you are concerned about your child’s brain health you might reconsider all of the above. As it turns out, happy meals don’t make your brain all that happy. And the research shows it.
A recent study, published in Science Daily, correlated fast food consumption with lower test scores in children.
Here are the quick facts.
Researchers found that the more frequently children reported eating fast food in fifth grade, the lower their growth in reading, math, and science test scores by the time they reached eighth grade.
Students who ate the most fast food had test score gains that were up to about 20 percent lower than those who didn't eat any fast food at all.
20% lower is like going from A’s to C’s. Or from B’s to D’s. That’s a huge impact. Is that super-size burger and fries worth that?
Kelly Purtell, lead author of the study and assistant professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University said "There's a lot of evidence that fast-food consumption is linked to childhood obesity, but the problems don't end there, relying too much on fast food could hurt how well children do in the classroom."
The researchers were careful to control for other factors such as socioeconomic status, how much television they watched, how much they exercised, and other foods they ate. So they had a pretty high level of certainty that fast food was the culprit.
The study looked at progress between fifth and eighth grade. They looked at reading, math, and science. Children who ate fast food four to six times per week, or every day, showed significantly lower gains in all three achievement areas. However, children who ate fast food just one to three times a week had lower academic growth only in math. Turns out, too much finger-lickin-good might lead to doing math on your fingers. Right?
The study doesn’t point to why there was a correlation, but it’s easy to speculate based on other studies. Other studies have shown fast food to be deficient in some nutrients necessary for cognitive development such as iron. Studies have also shown that foods high in fat and sugar have an immediate effect on memory and other learning processes. An immediate effect!
Soda, that yummy elixir of caffeine and sugar. Good stuff right? Obviously Not! Both of those can cause anxiety. Anxiety pretty much shuts down learning. Diseases such as hypertension and NAFLD (Pronounced naffeldee) which were once considered diseases of the aging, are now commonly being seen in children. And these diseases do cause cognitive impairment.
Healthier Fast Food Alternatives
What about those healthier fast food items? Are they better? Not so much. For example, a Wendy’s Apple Pecan Chicken Salad contains 40 grams of sugar and a McDonald’s Fruit & Yogurt Parfait has 22 grams. That’s a lot of sugar. I know it’s obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. Research has indicated high sugar intake can lead to health issues from heart disease to diabetes to obesity. Brain scans also reveal how sugar can be ADDICTIVE!. The more you eat, the more you’re likely to keep craving it.
Hmm was that a tantrum or could it have been withdrawals?
Another culprit could be trans fats. Trans fats have been shown to reduce serotonin levels in the brain. This can lead to depression. Trans fats can cause cellular destruction, wreak havoc on hormone production, adversely affect memory, and increase inflammation in the brain. Inflammation in the brain can inhibit the body’s production of Omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3's are essential to brain function.
The FDA has called for a phase-out of trans fats but most fast foods are still loaded with them. Most meals still contain more than the FDA recommends. Phase out? I think I’d just go cold turkey.
Also, watch out for most vegetable oils. Many are processed with high heat and solvents and this causes them to be inflammatory also.
Think about this. If you were to take a brain and dehydrate it you’d mostly be left with essential fatty acids. Specifically Omega 3 and Omega 6. That’s what the brain is made out of. The good fats that come from nuts, seeds, fatty fish, meat, and other products from grass-fed cows. Not trans fats or processed vegetable oils. Can you imagine a brain made out of french fry grease? Yuck! Right?
Bad fats, sugar, and lack of essential nutrients. Should we even wonder why fast foods can lead to learning problems?
Scary enough for you? Well, how about this?
In other videos we’ve created, like the video on dyslexia and following instructions, we’ve talked a lot about the hippocampus. One of the most critical areas of the brain for learning, spatial awareness, logic, memory, and even mood. You might have also learned from our other videos that the hippocampus is the part of the brain that is the most capable of neurogenesis. The growth of new brain cells. The hippocampus is capable of growing to improve its capacity. Need more learning ability. Grow the hippocampus.
But, and here’s the scary part.
Studies have shown that a diet high in processed foods can reduce the amount of certain neurotrophins, which are proteins in the brain that prompt the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus. This can lead to a SHRINKING hippocampus. And, of course, with a shrinking hippocampus, there will be cognitive deficits. There’s no question here. It has been clearly demonstrated that the quality of diet is linked to the size of the hippocampus. Not just in a small way. The effect is large. Told ya it was scary?
The hippocampus can grow, and it can shrink. Feed it well and challenge it and it grows. Feed it poorly and let it be lazy and it shrinks.
How about moods?
If your child is struggling academically, they might have some bad moods to go along with that struggle. No fun right? Can foods affect moods too?
Turns out that they can.
Let’s consider, Trigger foods, Mood-Boosting foods, and foods that can lead to bad moods.
Trigger foods first. Comfort foods. Yeah, we’ve all done it right. Have a rough day and then sit down and devour an entire carton of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia. Right? Why do we do that?
People often turn to comfort foods when they're feeling down because these foods can trigger the release of pleasure-inducing chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine. These foods, such as chocolate and ice cream, are often high in sugar, fat or both. These can activate the brain's reward system. They provide a temporary feeling of pleasure and satisfaction. Additionally, these foods may also have an emotional association, such as memories of happy times or comforting childhood memories, which can further contribute to their perceived comforting effects. But, of course, in the long run, these foods can make things worse.
So what can we do to avoid you, or your child turning to these trigger foods when feeling down, angry, or irritated?
Well, being prepared for it is a good idea. Luck favors the prepared right?
The first part of being prepared is to have healthy snacks on hand and easy to grab. Get junk food out of the house!
Second. Have a distraction ready. What activity can you turn to? A walk, a game, a hobby. Physical activities are going to be better here but any distraction works.
Thirdly, keep up on sleep. When we are tired moods get worse and our ability to resist temptation and make better choices goes out the window.
The fourth suggestion is for YOU to practice mindfulness. That will help you become more self-aware and less likely to react poorly to your child’s bad mood.
And finally, watch our documentary, “The Overly Emotional Child”. It’s available on Amazon Prime video as well as other major platforms and you can check out the trailer right here [point up with left]
That will help you teach your child to be more emotionally intelligent.
Now, what about mood-boosting nutrients?
Chromium: You can get it from broccoli, apples, and whole grains. Chromium increases the levels of certain neurotransmitters, mainly serotonin which is a mood elevator.
Magnesium: Magnesium is found in leafy greens, nuts, legumes. It is one of the most important minerals in the body, and insufficient levels can lead to many problems including headaches, insomnia, and agitation. It may also have an antidepressant effect for some.
Zinc: Zinc is another highly essential mineral that is found in red meat, poultry, oysters, nuts, and legumes. It is important for hormonal functions, increasing immunity, and neural function.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are mainly obtained from oily fish like salmon and tuna, and may lower brain inflammation.
Vitamin B6, B9, and B12: These are found in foods such as dairy products, citrus, dark green veggies, and whole grains. These vitamins help to regulate the body's homocysteine levels, which if high, might lead to higher risk of heart disease and depression.
Vitamin A, C and E: All three are antioxidants and are found in the hundreds of polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables. They help to protect the body from damage caused by free radicals and inflammation, which can contribute to the development of mood disorders.
Tryptophan: An essential amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating mood, sleep, and appetite. Tryptophan can be found in foods such as turkey, chicken, nuts, seeds, tofu, and cheese.
Iron: Iron is important for the production of red blood cells, which transport oxygen to the brain. Iron deficiency can lead to fatigue and irritability. Iron can be found in foods such as red meat, poultry, fish, beans, and leafy greens. But overdoing it on iron can lead to problems. Which we’ll discuss later.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is important for overall health, and studies have shown that low levels of vitamin D are associated with an increased risk of depression. So go out and get some sun.
Folate: Folate is a B vitamin that is important for the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Folate can be found in foods such as leafy greens, citrus fruits, beans, and nuts.
Try adding these healthy brain foods and keep a mood journal as you do. Let us know how it goes.
What about bad-mood causing foods?
Well, this should be pretty obvious at this point. Right?
Processed foods. Inflammation right?
High-sugar foods: These cause a spike in blood sugar levels, followed by a crash, which can lead to feelings of irritability, fatigue, and mood swings.
Caffeine: Caffeine can cause anxiety and jitteriness in some people. It can also disrupt sleep, which can lead to feelings of fatigue and irritability the next day. So watch those sodas.
Alcohol: I’m sure your child is not downing a beer to chill out, but remember your mood is important too. While moderate alcohol consumption may have some benefits, excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
Gluten: Some people have gluten sensitivities, which can cause inflammation in the body and lead to negative effects on mood, such as fatigue, brain fog, and irritability.
To optimize your child’s brain health, eliminate these as much as possible. But remember, doing everything, all at once almost never works. Make small changes over time. Don’t try to do everything at once or that addicted brain will revolt.
This next part might be surprising to you. Those little micro-organisms that live in your child’s gut. Well as it turns out, they have a say in brain function too!
There’s a big connection between brain health and gut health. That’s because the gut and the brain are closely linked through the gut-brain axis. This is a complex communication system that connects the gut and the brain through neural, hormonal, and immune pathways. The gut microbiome plays a critical role in regulating this communication.
A healthy gut is a home to trillions of microorganisms. This includes bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. Mostly bacteria though. Like somewhere between 100 trillion and 1,000 trillion of them. That’s a lot!
Your gut microbiome is constantly changing, and it is affected by things such as diet, lifestyle, and exposure to antibiotics. To have a healthy gut biome you want diversity. Yes, there will be some baddies in there. But when you have diversity they are overwhelmed by the good guys and have no bad effect. Of course, if the good guys get weak, the bad guys are always there, ready to take over. You don’t want that.
Research has shown that the gut microbiome can affect the brain in several ways: These are:
Neurotransmitters: The gut microbiome can produce and regulate neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. These are important for regulating mood and emotional well-being.
Inflammation: A disruption in the gut microbiome can lead to chronic inflammation. We know what that does already, right?
The immune system: The gut microbiome helps regulate the immune system. A disruption in the gut microbiome can lead to an overactive immune response, which leads to brain inflammation.
Hormones: The gut microbiome can produce stress hormones such as cortisol.
Nutrients: The gut microbiome affects the absorption and utilization of nutrients that are important for brain health.
Are you seeing how important a healthy gut is?
So let’s talk about what foods help improve gut health and your microbiome.
First. Fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains: These foods provide prebiotics. Prebiotics are food for the beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Also, it’s important to get as much diversity in the fiber as possible. Your Grandma’s Metamucil ain’t gonna cut it.
So next we go to. More fiber, but from legumes. Legumes such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas are rich in both prebiotics and protein.
Third is fermented foods: Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha are rich in probiotics. These are live microorganisms. The good guys. These probiotics help predigest our food. Releasing more nutrients.
Fourth is nuts and seeds: Nuts and seeds are rich in fiber, healthy fats, and antioxidants.
Then there are the healthy fats: Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s in the right ratios. These come from foods such as olive oil, avocado, and fatty fish.
I also have an honorable mention for you. Herbs and spices: Some herbs and spices such as turmeric, ginger, and garlic are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and have been shown to have a positive impact on gut health. So do cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cilantro, cayenne, nutmeg, and mustard. Garlic also has a strong prebiotic called inulin that feeds the goodies in the gut and its anti-microbial qualities knock down the baddies.
Turmeric is an extra powerful anti-inflammatory and it’s even more powerful when combined with black pepper and a little healthy fat. So if your kids like curry, your golden.
There’s an old wives' tale that says sage improves brain function. Turns out it’s true. Tests have shown sage can improve memory, executive function, and attention. I guess those old wives were pretty smart.
What’s bad for the gut? Processed foods, saturated fats, and sugar. Need I go on? Seeing a pattern here?
What about supplements?
While it’s necessary to feed the brain all the healthy nutrients it needs, overdoing with some supplements can cause problems. Be careful with the following.
Iron. Iron is a necessary nutrient but it can be harmful to the brain if taken in excessive amounts or if the person has a condition that prevents proper absorption of iron. Too much iron can lead to oxidative stress and the build-up of plaque in the brain. These have been linked to conditions like Alzheimer's disease, mental disorders, and poor brain development in children.
Vitamin A: High doses of vitamin A can be toxic to the brain, leading to symptoms such as confusion, headache, and fatigue.
Vitamin E: High doses of vitamin E can increase the risk of stroke and may also cause cognitive decline.
Vitamin B6: High doses of vitamin B6 can cause neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that can lead to tingling and weakness in the hands and feet.
Zinc: High doses of zinc can interfere with the absorption of copper, leading to anemia and neurodegeneration.
Selenium: High doses of selenium can cause neurological problems such as tremors, muscle weakness, and cognitive impairment.
All of these are healthy, in the right doses, but cause problems if there’s too much. So careful here. Check with your doctor if you are supplementing with these.
Kids will eat healthy if prompted to. Once you break any addictions and give it some time. A Harvard study showed that when they added more fruits and veggies to school meals they got eaten. The scientists actually collected the trash and looked.
Before we go, here are a couple more tasty healthy foods that have some surprising benefits.
Berries, such as blueberries, contain anti-oxidants that have been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier. Good for the brain.
And here’s some really great news. Your bonus for staying to the end. Chocolate, yes chocolate, is good for the brain. Don’t overdo it of course. Chocolate contains epicatechin. Epicatechin has been shown to improve memory, executive function, and processing speed. That’s good news in my book.
Ever heard of sulforaphane? Sulforaphane is a substance that has gotten a lot of study lately. It has many health benefits, including increasing circulation to the brain. It’s found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli. And it’s found in extremely high amounts in broccoli sprouts which are easy to grow and super tasty.
Pumpkin seeds can be a brain-healthy snack. They also contain healthy omega 3’s. And additionally, they also contain Magnesium and Zinc.
And remember how bad they said eggs were for us. Turns out they are pretty healthy. A Finnish study showed numerous brain benefits from eggs. Including increased performance on cognitive tests.
I know, we’ve given you a lot to think about in this video. But in case you want more we’ve got a couple of free gifts for you.
The first is a book we created on a brain-healthy diet. It goes into even more detail than this video. Get it here.
Or if you are looking for the fast and easy, we created a brain-healthy cookbook. It’s loaded with easy-to-make recipes sure to please the kids.
And, if you sense that your child is starting to struggle in school, do what thousands of other parents have done. Start a free trial of the Learning Success System.
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