Breakfast foods that boost focus, attention, mood, and provide lasting energy – to avoid the “Seven Dwarf Syndrome” at school.
“Presence is more than just being there.” – Malcom S. Forbes
Just being seated at their desk is not enough, kids need to be ready to focus, pay attention, and really connect to the material. Skip breakfast, or make poor choices, and kids might find themselves feeling like one of the Seven Little Dwarfs – Sleepy, Grumpy or Dopey.
According to an Australian study, people who follow a “Western”, or Standard American Diet (SAD) are more likely to have attention issues and receive an ADHD diagnosis. The SAD is characterized as more sweets, processed, fried and refined foods – in general, more packaged and convenience foods. Although there really isn’t a “Seven Dwarf Syndrome,” Dr. William Sears coined the term NDD – Nutrition Deficit Disorder, and he says that some cases of ADD are really just NDD. Read: Is it ADD or NDD?: 12 Inattention Culprits.
The Power-up Breakfast:
The first meal of the day, breakfast literally means “breaking the fast.” For kids to be able to stay on task and engaged, the morning meal should help them power-up and provide lasting energy. The right choices will properly fuel our kids’ bodies, brains, and even their mood. The wrong choices could put kids at a disadvantage to learn. Critical to provide a good foundation for learning and attention in school, the ideal power-up breakfast will be a good source of one or more of the following:
- Healthy Fats
- Fiber/Whole Grains
1. Healthy fats
The brain composition is over 60% fat, so in order for the brain to develop and work well – diets must have sufficient amounts of healthy fats. Fatty acids are basically what the brain needs to think and feel. The no and low-fat diet craze of recent years was literally starving our brains! One of the most important fats for the brain is omega 3s – known as essential fatty acids. Essential means that our body can not manufacture them, so they must be consumed. A 1996 Purdue University study revealed that kids with learning and behavior problems had lower levels of the omega 3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in their blood. A 2000 study showed that adding DHA fats to infant formula increased their intelligence. Conversely, declines in DHA levels of the brain are associated with cognitive decline. Consumption of fish (omega 3s) is also associated with lower levels of depression. The US Military is spending over $1 Million to study the effects of fish oils on the prevention and treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the lead doctor on the study refers to fish oil as “nutritional armor” for soldiers.
Omega 3s are found in: fatty fish like salmon, some nuts and seeds (like flax and chia seeds), and fish oils. Since most American kids don’t like fish for breakfast, taking a fish oil or another omega 3 supplement in the morning is an easy way to boost those omega 3s. Kids definitely will run the other way if it smells or tastes fishy, so here are some delicious options, with no fishy taste or smell:
- Barleans Omega Swirl – tastes like a smoothie, and comes in a variety of delicious, sugar-free flavors. Or try Barleans Omega Bubbles an orange cream flavored softgel (new – coming soon!).
- Coromega packets or Gummy Fruits - a delicious and easy way to get kids to take Omega 3s.
- Chia Seeds – vegetarian source of omega 3s, also a great fiber source. Add to yogurt, smoothies, oatmeal, pancake batter and add to any homemade baked goods. Chia seeds are high in ALA, which the body converts to DHA. Chia seeds have amazing nutritional properties, read about how chia can lower cholesterol, and it’s hydration and endurance benefits.
Fats also provide the body with an important source of energy after they are metabolized. Other healthy fats are found in olive oil, avocados, and coconut oil. Coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerides which are shown to be metabolized more quickly than other fats, so they can be more quickly converted to energy and will be less likely to be stored (as fat).
A good component of a solid power-up breakfast, protein gives kids lasting energy – key to help them stay energized and focused throughout the morning.
Eggs are one of the highest quality protein sources, providing about 6 grams of protein per large egg. Another important nutrient that can be obtained from eggs is choline, which supports memory and brain functioning. More than 90% of Americans were found to be deficient in choline according to a Iowa State University study. Many people have been led to believe that egg yolks raise our cholesterol, and have been advised to limit egg consumption, or skip the yolks. But researchers at Harvard School of Nutrition have found that the majority of the population, eggs do not raise blood cholesterol. Egg yolks are a rich source of lecithin, needed for proper nerve functioning, and which play a role in memory and concentration. Kansas State University discovered that the lecithin in eggs reduces the absorption of cholesterol. So go ahead and eat the yolks, and please – do not be tricked into buying those boxed “eggs” to avoid the cholesterol! Choosing organic eggs is worth the extra pennies, as they are naturally higher in omega 3 fatty acids.
Yogurt is produced by fermentation of dairy (or dairy alternatives). Not only is yogurt high in protein, it is one of the richest sources of calcium, and contains probiotics. Probiotics promote a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut, which promotes good digestion and boosts immunity. Gut disbiosys is an imbalance of bacteria in the intestines, and is a evolving theory for the etiology of Autism, ADHD, sensory processing and related disorders. But watch out for the flavored varieties – they can have too much sugar and even artificial coloring. Look for brands that have lower sugar content, and I always choose organic whenever possible. You can buy plain yogurt, and sweeten it yourself with a little Natures Agave, Barleans Omega Swirl, or your own fruit. Try these brands I like:
- Wallaby Yogurt – For the flavored varieties, I like Wallaby because it is organic and has less sugar than other flavored varieties, they have a new kid-sized yogurt – called Joey.
- Good Belly is actually not yogurt, but a dairy- free probiotic drink that contains 100% of kids’ vitamin C needs, 10% of their calcium, and a patented probiotic strain. Great for vegans or those avoiding dairy. The tropical green flavor is low in sugar and packed with nutrients. The mango flavor is delicious, and is great in smoothies, I like it mixed with some plain coconut kefir.
- So Delicious makes a wonderful coconut kefir, a non-dairy way to get probiotics, protein, and calcium. Comes in plain, vanilla, and strawberry.
Nuts and Nut Butters – Spreading some nut butter on their toast will give kids some protein and healthy fats for longer lasting energy. Nuts and nut butters are great on apple slices, you can even add a spoonful to oatmeal. Nuts are also a good source of healthy fats. But read the labels to make sure that there is no added sugar or trans fats. If if you do choose peanut butter, look for the all-natural varieties with no added sugars or oils. I prefer the nutrition of almond butter over peanut, but if you do choose peanut – look for a brand that is made from Valencia peanuts, they are less likely to contain aflatoxins, a carcinogen. Read: Perplexed About Peanuts for more info. This brand is a particularly good nut butter:
- Nuttzo is a multi-seed nut butter, and is high in omega 3s and protein. Comes in a crunchy valencia peanut, and no peanut variety.
Smoothies are a great way to pack in protein, fiber, and omega 3s- I like to put frozen berries, banana, vanilla protein powder, a greens powder (such as Barleans Greens) and 2 Tablespoons of chia seed. I also like to add some So Delicious coconut keifer, or yogurt. Add some Good Belly mango – it contains probiotics, and will add mango flavors and a little sweetness. Smoothies are great because they are portable in case you are running late – just pour into a water bottle or glass – voila! A power-up meal in a glass.
3. Whole Grains/Fiber
Many kids (and adults) just simply do not get enough fiber in their diets. Fiber is important because it keeps our digestive system working well, and it also provides longer lasting energy – because unlike white flour, foods made with whole grains takes the body longer to use/digest. Many kids miss school because of “tummy toubles” that could be solved by increasing the amount of natural fiber in their diets. Good sources of fiber are whole grains, whole fruits, and vegetables. A food is considered a good fiber source if it has at least 3 grams of fiber per serving, excellent if it has over 5 grams. Foods with fiber in them are considered complex carbohydrates – digesting complex carbs with fiber takes longer than digesting simple carbs (sugar and all processed “white” grains). High fiber foods stay in the system longer and and provide the body with more energy for longer periods. When grains are processed, the fiber is removed along with most of the natural nutrients. Processed grains are simple carbs – and are quickly converted to sugar in the body. Some good whole grain options:
- Ezekiel Bread – check out the ingredients in the bread aisle, and you will be hard-pressed to find one that does not contain at least one or more of the following: enriched flour, sugar, or high fructose corn syrup. For those that can eat wheat, I like Ezekiel bread from Food for Life because it is made with organic sprouted whole wheat and contains no sugar. Food for Life also make cereals, english muffins, and gluten-free varieties. Why are spouted grains better? Sprouting “predigests” the grains and boosts the natural enzyme and vitamin content. Sprouting also neutralizes phytic acid found in grains and which blocks the absorption of nutrients. Ezekiel bread is a complete protein, closely resembling the protein content of an egg. It can take some kids time to adjust to whole grain breads, toasting it and topping it with some jelly or nut butter, or try this recipe for apple butter.
- Chia seeds in addition to the omega 3 content, chia seeds are a highly nutritious fiber. It has no flavor, so it can be easily added to many foods to boost the fiber content of foods. Because they are very hydrophillic, they soak up to about 10 times their weight in water – which promotes hydration, aids digestion, and more. Read more.
Fruits – fruits are a delicious start to your morning, and a good source of nutritious fiber. A bowl of berries with some yogurt, a half of a grapefruit, a fresh fruit smoothie – all will provide extra fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins to your kids’ morning. Each meal of the day is an opportunity to eat some fruits and veggies – the new My Plate suggests we fill half our plate with plant-based foods! What about fruit juice? Definitely avoid any juice that is not 100% juice, or has the artificial colors. Drinking juice (even 100% juice) can do the same thing that sugar does – it causes our blood sugar to spike and then shortly after, it will fall. So you are always better eating the whole fruit instead of drinking the juice. The fruit contains fiber which slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, gives us lasting energy, aids digestion, and fills up our tummies. If you do choose juice, make sure it is real juice, serve a small glass, and pair it with some protein, fiber, and/or healthy fats to prevent the sugar spike and crash.
Vegetables – not one of the foods we typically think about for breakfast – veggies are a great addition to our morning routine. Add in some spinach, tomatoes and peppers into your morning omelette. I like this recipe for a kid-friendly veggie omelette. Roasted and pureed sweet potatoes are a wonderful addition to your pancake batter. I like to sneak in some veggies into smoothies – carrots go great in a mango/peach smoothie, and add lots of extra color. Baby spinach is a wonderful addition to smoothies too. I like to use Greens Powders in my morning smoothies too. Try Barleans Greens, they come in a variety of flavors, or just plain.
Just Don’t Skip It!
If your child frequently is running late for school and skips breakfast, having some healthy on-the-go options on hand is a good plan. When I make smoothies, I like to pour any extra into popsicle molds – they make a great after school snack, and also a quick on-the-go breakfast. Cereal or granola bars can also be a good option – but watch out! Many bars are full of sugar or high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, low in fiber, and even have artificial coloring! Here are some better choices:
- Good on Ya bars – I am not a big “bar” person myself, but these are excellent. They come in 3 different flavors and the ingredients are organic/non-GMO, no soy, with no gluten or preservatives. An excellent source of fiber (7 grams), protein (8 grams), and they also contain flax which is a good source of ALA (omega 3s). The breakfast bar contains brazil nuts, which is the highest known food source for selenium, a trace mineral associated with lowering cancer risk.
- Amy’s Organic Breakfast Scramble - grab this from the freezer, heat it up and go! The ingredients are 90% organic, high in protein, and it is even a good fiber source – this is a healthy on the go breakfast. There is 450 mg. of sodium, so watch sodium intake for the rest of the day.
Top 3 Breakfast Ingredients to Avoid for Focus:
1. Sugar. We all know that eating sugar is not nutritious. But besides being empty calories – a sugary breakfast is a disastrous way to send a kid off to school. Sugary foods give us an initial burst of energy; but then shortly after it is followed by a ‘crash,” something I call “The Sugar Rollercoaster.” When we crash, our blood sugar drops, and we can lose focus, energy; some individuals who are hypoglycemic or pre-diabetic can even become shaky, sleepy, and lethargic – not the ideal state for our kids to learn.
If you do choose a food with some sweetness, try to select one with primarily naturally occurring sugars (not added), that are a good source of fiber, protein and/or healthy fats. Sugary cereals, pastries, donuts, or anything swimming in syrup is not likely to give anyone the lasting energy they will need to get through first period, never mind getting them to lunchtime. Avoiding cereals with more than 10 grams of sugar per serving is a smart approach, or anything that lists sugar as the first or second ingredient. Also watch out for the sneaky sugar sources – foods that seem healthy, but are loaded with sugar. Although they can be a good source of protein and calcium, and some of the sugar is naturally-occurring, certain brands of yogurt can also have a lot of added sugar. Read labels – look at the grams of sugar, and also the percentage of calcium in the yogurt. The higher the percentage of calcium, typically – the less sugar, choose brands that are closer to 30% calcium. Some other sneaky “health foods’ are muffins and granola – both can be full of sugar. Try to choose the lowest sugar option, or better yet – make it yourself! The best way to watch your sugar intake is to make it yourself and become a label-reader – get familiar with the sugar content in the foods you are feeding your kids. Next time you are at the store, see if there is a better choice – there often is! Have you ever added up all the sugar you or your kids eat in a day? Try it – it might shock you!
2. Trans fats. Do doughnuts Make you Dumber? Increasing all fats in the diet is not the answer. There are some fats that we want to avoid: trans fats. Trans fats are “altered fats,” which are created when food heated in fats for a long period (ie: deep fried), or when they are hydrogenated (ie: margarine). Trans fats tend to be solid at body temperature, and therefore act more like saturated fats, making cells more rigid and inflexible, and interfering with normal functioning of cell membranes. Studies have shown that trans fats can interfere with DHA utilization in the brain, leading to diminished brain functioning. Additionally, trans fats have been shown to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol. Foods that contain trans fat include; doughnuts, margarines, mayonnaise, salad dressings, french fries and other fast foods, and many processed/packaged foods like cakes, pastries, cookies, etc. Even if the package says “contains no trans fats”, it can contain them – in small amounts (if there is less than 1 gram, they can claim no trans fats). Avoiding or limiting processed and packaged foods, or anything that says “may contain partially hydrogenated soybean, sunflower, safflower, or corn oil” on the label will help you steer clear of trans fats.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is generally too high in omega 6 fats, and deficient in omega 3s. This imbalance leads to chronic inflammation, a foundation of most degenerative diseases. Besides behavior, focus and attention issues, some other signs of fatty acid imbalances are: dry or cracked skin, dandruff/dry hair, dry eyes, allergies, poor wound healing, fatigue, frequent infections, and excessive thirst. Other disorders that have been linked to fatty acid imbalances: Alzheimers/dementia, autoimmune disorders, MS, Schizophrenia, Depression, aggression, migraines, neurological diseases, tinnitis, and more.
3. Artificial Colors, Preservatives, other Chemicals. The jury is still out as far as the FDA is concerned, but several studies have revealed that certain susceptible kids are negatively affected by the chemicals in artificial coloring, especially kids with ADHD and Autism. So when there are plenty of alternatives, why would we feed our kids a cereal or another food that has artificial colors in them? According to the Mayo Clinic, kids who are prone to hyperactivity should especially avoid foods with yellow dye numbers 5, 6 and 10, as well as sodium benzoate and red dye number 40. Look at the ingredients list on all cereals, on the sparkly toothpaste your kids uses in the morning, some brands of flavored yogurts, some strawberry flavored milk, and some “fruit” drinks. If it is brightly colored, chances are the color came from artificial sources. Choosing organic cereal, yogurt and natural toothpastes is a good approach, as you can be sure that there are not artificial colors in anything that has the USDA certified organic label. But even some natural compounds can be a problem – salicylates are naturally occurring chemicals that can create issues in individuals with ADHD. Dehydrated fruits, fresh berries, tomatoes, tea, licorice, peppermint candy/extract, cucumbers and spices such as curry powder, paprika, thyme and rosemary can all contain salicylates.
A study from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health has found that eating a healthy diet in childhood can be associated with small increases in I.Q. Breakfast could be the tipping point to make or break students’ ability to pay attention and focus in class. But a better diet may not be the full answer for all kids. There are a number of physiological reasons that can cause behavior and attention problems, including but not limited to ADHD. Read: Is it ADD or NDD? for more information about various physiological reasons for attention and behavior issues.
- Is This Your Child? Discovering and Treating Unrecognized Allergies in Children and Adults. by Doris Rapp, MD
- Smart Fats, by Michael A. Schmidt
- Win the War Within. The Eating Plan that’s Clinically Proven to Fight Inflammation – The Hidden Cause of Weight Gain and Chronic Disease. by Floyd H. Chilton, PhD.
Note: This article was originally written in 2011, it was edited in 2014.
Sara Vance is a Clinical Nutritionist in the Encinitas, CA area.
*This content is not to be construed as providing medical advice. All information provided is general and not specific to individuals. Persons experiencing problems or with questions about their health or medications, should consult their medical professional. Persons already taking prescription medications should consult a doctor before taking the above foods, herbs, vitamins or supplements to be sure there are no interactions.
©2011, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.