Thank you to Coronado SAFE for inviting me to speak at your 3rd Annual Parenting Conference!
Recently someone whose child has been dealing with a bunch of health issues asked me “Why does kids’ health have to be so complicated nowadays?” He has a point:
The statistics are so grim that experts worry that in a few decades there may not be enough healthy individuals to take care of the sick individuals. In fact, this may be the first generation of kids which may not outlive their parents.
Take a walk down the aisle of your average grocery store, and you will see hundreds and thousands of brightly colored and flavor-blasted sodas, chips, cookies, cereals, bars, yogurts, candies, energy and sports drinks, mac n cheese cups, frozen pizzas and dinners, refrigerator doughs, ice creams, and a wide variety of foods specifically designed and marketed towards….our kids.
Seventy four percent of these foods contain added sugars. And far too many of these foods contain artificial colors, flavorings, flavor enhancers, preservatives, monosodium glutamate, trans fats, GMOs, and other ingredients that we don’t recognize or know what they are there for.
The question remains – is this even food? Or is it a science experiment? And do we want our kids to be lab rats in a giant experiment?
I know all too well how tempting all this junk food can be for a kid.
Can you guess who that girl is in this photo?
Yep – that was me. I think I was around 12 years old then. Some of my favorite foods were hot dogs and ice cream.
If you had told that girl that she would one day write a book, speak in front of large audiences, and go on TV regularly – all to share her knowledge about nutrition and health – she would have laughed herself silly. You see, when I was that age, I didn’t realize that what I ate affected everything – from my energy, to my moods, brain function, digestion, immune system, and my weight. All I cared about was how food tasted. And I frequently reached for things like hot dogs, candy, sodas, cookies, cakes, and chips.
Sure, they might taste good – but in the long term all that junk food can cause tremendous mental and physical pain.
But I am one of the lucky ones – because the majority of overweight children grow up to become overweight/obese adults.
The thing is – it doesn’t have to be this way.
NO ONE HAS TO BE A STATISTIC.
I am living proof.
So what can we do to stop this trajectory? The answer is surprisingly simple:
Eat Real Food.
Although it may be simple, it might not be so easy.
Because if you are eating packaged and processed foods, you are getting a lot more sugar, chemicals and GMOs in your diet than you realize.
Here are 5 Tips to Help you Improve Your Family’s Diet:
1. Cut way back on added sugar – read Are Our Kids Eating Toxic Amounts of Sugar? for more info.
2. Avoid anything with partially hydrogenated oils (this means there are trans fats).
3. Get the artificial colors out. If it has a color and a number after it, it is an artificial color. Artificial colors have been found to affect attention and behavior in some kids. In fact, in the United Kingdom – if a food has an artificial color, it has to have a label on it that says:
‘may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children’
So instead of putting on that label, most manufacturers will use natural colorings instead. For example, if you buy Kraft mac n cheese in the UK, it is made with natural colorings, while the blue box in the US contains artificial colors. There are many other examples of this kind of double standard.
4. Avoid chemicals in foods like mono-sodium glutamate (MSG), flavor enhancers, and preservatives. If you can’t pronounce it, or don’t know what it is – it probably is a chemical.
5. Eat more plant-based foods – especially vegetables. Studies show that eating more plant-based foods can lower your risk of disease and prolong your life. Shoot for between 7 and 9 servings of plant based foods every day. Or try to fill up half your plate at least twice daily.
Want to learn more about nutrition and health?
Below are some additional resources:
Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.
©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.
You know the feeling that you get when you are nervous? Like there are butterflies in your stomach? Have you ever had that “sinking feeling” in your gut after you made a big mistake? Sometimes we have those “gut reactions” to situations – where we can’t really explain it, but we just feel like something seems amiss. It is totally normal to experience some nervousness, anxiety, fear, and even panic occasionally. In fact – we should learn to listen to our gut, because sometimes, our gut feelings can guide us in ways that our brain can’t.
But what about when these feelings start to become chronic, overwhelming, and negatively affect someone’s life?
Whenever someone tells me that they have a lot of anxiety or a related mood disorder – my first question is “how is your digestion?” The typical response is, “terrible – but what do my digestive issues have to do with my anxiety?” It is all about the second brain.
Our Second Brain
Our gut and our brains are connected so closely that Dr. Michael Gershon coined our gut “the second brain”. Lined with a complex and extensive set of neurons, called the enteric nervous system, “gut reaction” helps to explain what our second brain does – it guides our feelings, moods, certain behaviors, and reactions.
Our enteric nervous system/gut is responsible for manufacturing important neurotransmitters that play a role in our mood and brain function. So when there has been a gut imbalance or a leaky gut, there often can be mood imbalances and neurological manifestations, because the gut is no longer able to effectively absorb nutrients or convert them into these important brain chemicals. For example, over 90% of our serotonin, often referred to as “the happiness hormone,” is found in our guts. Low serotonin can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mood imbalances. Other neurotransmitters that can be involved in anxiety include GABA, dopamine, and epinephrine. So you can see how gut issues can affect our emotions.
Digestive Issues Very Common
The trouble is – gut imbalances are rampant – 1 in 5 Americans regularly suffers from digestive complaints. They are so common that we often just suffer through them, thinking that is just “normal” for us, and that there is nothing that we can do. But it is important to not ignore digestive issues because the gut is the foundation of our health. If allowed to continue, gut health issues can develop into other problems – affecting the brain, mood, joints, skin, thyroid, immune system, and more.
Digestive troubles over time can lead to poor absorption, which can develop into nutrient deficiencies, imbalances in neurotransmitters and amino acids – all of which can drive depression, anxiety, mood disorders; and other problems like ADHD and even addictions.
Although this may not work for everyone, there are a number of things to try if your second brain is causing you anxiety:
Heal the root cause, the gut:
Get some relief from the symptoms:
Until the gut is healed, it might not be effectively making neurotransmitters, which can cause someone to feel imbalanced, unfocused and anxious. Often, this is one reason that can drive people to abuse drugs and alcohol – they are trying to correct or self-medicate these imbalances. It is possible to test the neurotransmitters and take supplements that can help the body to produce more of the depleted neurotransmitters to feel more balanced.
The Gut & the Immune System
The gut is also the foundation of the immune system, so someone that frequently gets colds or infections, might want to look at improving their gut health to boost their immune system. One food that heals the gut and boosts the immune system is organic bone broth – so there is truth to the Old Wives Tale that chicken soup heals a cold (also helps to prevent one too).
This is a very in-depth topic. If you are interested in learning more about how the gut affects the brain, mood, and other areas of health, here are some additional articles:
Our gut is the foundation of our health. As Hippocrates so wisely said over 2,000 years ago:
“All disease begins in the gut.”
Please note: If you are experiencing extreme stress, anxiety or overwhelm – please seek out help from a mental health practitioner right away. The national Suicide Hotline can help you to find the necessary resources if you are in a mental health crisis: 1-800-273-8255.
September is ADHD Awareness month.
The number of children diagnosed with ADHD is skyrocketing. In the past 11 years cases of ADHD have risen an astonishing 43%, with 11% of school-aged children now affected, and nearly 20% of boys receiving a diagnosis by high school. Most families are given one option – ADHD medication. And it is understandable why many would try them – parents do not want their kids to fall behind; plus they often feel pressure from teachers whose classes are being disrupted. But according to this article, there is insufficient data to prove the long-term safety of ADHD medications.
However, the research to support dietary approaches to ADHD dates back over 40 years. A pioneer in the area of nutrition and behavior, Pediatric Allergist Dr. Ben Feingold began to study how certain foods and chemicals affected behavior back in the mid-1960s, and his studies found a link. According to Dr. Feingold, “Hyperactivity can be triggered by synthetic additives – specifically synthetic colors, synthetic flavors and the preservatives BHA, BHT, (and TBHQ – added later, and also a group of foods containing a natural salicylate radical.” He believed that “any compound, natural or synthetic, can induce an adverse reaction if the individual has the appropriate genetic profile, i.e., disposition.”
When a child has issues with their behavior, focus, or attention; right away we think there is an issue in the brain. And yes, there generally is an imbalance of important brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. But what if the problem first originated within the gut?
Our digestive system has a barrier that is designed to allow nutrients to pass through, yet keep toxins out. I think of our intestinal wall kind of like a bouncer at a nightclub who is paid to keep the troublemakers out (toxins), and let the high paying clients in (nutrients). But sometimes this barrier can develop gaps and become “leaky.” If this happens, things that are not supposed to be outside the intestines (like toxins, proteins from foods), can leak out into the blood stream and cause our immune system to go haywire – creating inflammation, an overactive immune system, and can manifest in many different health problems.
A leaky gut could explain why certain foods, dyes, vaccines, and other chemicals can affect some people; while others seem to be relatively unaffected. But the next question is – how does the gut get leaky in the first place?
Many different things can contribute to a leaky gut: prolonged high stress, a viral or parasitic infection; bacterial imbalance; repeated exposures to genetically modified foods, antibiotics, steroids, alcohol abuse, or NSAIDs to name a few. Another common cause (as well as a symptom) of leaky gut is food sensitivities. Some of the most common foods linked to leaky gut are wheat/gluten, soy, dairy, certain chemicals; and inflammatory diets that are high in sugars and damaged fats like trans fats and unstable polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oil.
You might be wondering how all of this relates to our brains? We all are familiar with our cerebral brain – the one in our skull that is hard at work whether we are doing math problems, or a Words with Friends puzzle. But we have another brain, inside our guts – coined “the second brain,” by Dr. Michael Gershon. Our second brain is lined with a complex and extensive set of neurons, called the enteric nervous system. “Gut reaction” helps to explain what our second brain does – it guides our feelings, moods, certain behaviors, and reactions.
When there is a leaky gut, there often can be mood imbalances and neurological manifestations, because our enteric nervous system is also responsible for manufacturing important neurotransmitters that play a role in our mood and brain function. Over 90% of our serotonin, often referred to as “the happiness hormone,” is found in our guts. Another important neurotransmitter involved with focus and attention is dopamine, which is involved in focus, attention and motivation. The interesting thing about dopamine, is it competes with histamine – which can be elevated or depressed in people with food sensitivities and allergies.
This can help us to make sense of why digestive troubles can contribute to poor absorption, nutrient deficiencies, and imbalances in neurotransmitters and amino acids – which can drive depression, anxiety, mood disorders; and other problems like ADHD.
Videogames – A Dopamine Rollercoaster
Parents of kids with focus and attention issues might scratch their heads wondering how their kid who can’t sit still for 10 minutes in class, can sit still for hours in front of a video or computer screen? In fact, it might be difficult to drag them away from it. Videogames flood the brain with dopamine, an important neurotransmitter needed for motivation, focus & attention. According to ADHD Expert Dr. Daniel Amen, “Many ADD children literally become addicted to playing video games. Video games bring pleasure & focus by increasing dopamine release. The problem is that the more dopamine is released, the less neurotransmitter is available later on to do schoolwork, homework, chores, and so on. Many parents have told me that the more a child plays video games, the worse he does in school. If you have a child with ADD, consider limiting their time spent on video games.” Kind of like a sugar rush & crash, videogames can lead to dopamine depletion, which can exacerbate focus issues.
Heal Our Second Brain
So back to that leaky gut. A healthy digestive system is critical for a healthy brain, metabolism, immune system, detox channels, and overall health. Here are some things you can do if you suspect that you or your child might have a leaky gut:
If the above do not work, there could be an infection in the gut. Infections or overgrowths of bacteria, yeasts can all wreak havoc on the digestion and overall health. Identifying an infection generally involves a stool test.
Although nutritional approaches do not work for everyone, studies conducted by Dr. Feingold found that a high percentage of his patients did respond to nutritional changes, and a recent study published in the Lancet found that 63% of cases of ADHD in the study could be linked back to a food sensitivity. For more information, read Food Intolerance & ADHD and Could You Have a Food Intolerance? to learn more.
Some tests that can be useful:
Halloween is over, so while is your sweet child acting like a little monster…?
In the weeks that follow Halloween parents might notice that their child:
Don’t worry – it could be the Halloween candy!
Between all the sugar and artificial colors, it is no wonder our kids’ aren’t their usual selves. All that candy has them on the Sugar Rollercoaster!
What is the Sugar Rollercoaster?
When we eat sugar, it goes surging into our bloodstream, giving us a burst of energy. But that energy is short-lived, and followed by a crash. So naturally, we tend to reach for more of what gave us the burst of energy, and the cycle happens all over again. I call this the “sugar rollercoaster,” and it is easy to get stuck on it! The blood sugar crash causes moodiness, increased hunger, low energy, and can even lead to shakiness.
Sugar and Immunity
Sugar also lowers our production of white blood cells, which reduces our immunity, not what we need this time of year when colds and flu season is coming into its’ peak.
More Addictive Than Cocaine?
A recent study found that sugar was more addictive than cocaine, so it is not surprising that once you get started, it is hard to stop.
What about the Artificial Colors?
In addition to the sugar, one packet of Skittles contains 9 (yes NINE) different artificial colors. Many parents might not realize the impact that all those colors can have on their kids. Artificial colors has been shown to negatively affect behavior and attention in certain susceptible kids. Europe has recognized this, and all products with artificial colors must contain warning labels. So most brands use natural colorings in Europe, while they use the brighter and cheaper artificial colors in the U.S. Watch this Halloween Candy Controvery segment on the Today Show to learn more.
So how much sugar does Halloween really add to the average kids’ diet?
Did you know that the average kid collects about 100 pieces of candy on Halloween night? Well, they are just fun-sized candies – so it is no big deal right? Well, a fun sized packet of Skittles contains 11.4 grams of sugar, which amounts to just under 3 teaspoons of sugar. Two packets of fun sized Skittles, and your child has already met their recommended added sugar intake for the whole day!! That leaves no room for the added sugar that is coming in their yogurt tubes, cereals, sports drinks, snack bars, fruit juice, flavored milks, or the barbeque sauce they dip their nuggets into (a surprising number of BBQ sauces’ first ingredient is high fructose corn syrup)!
It Really Adds Up
Let’s assume that on average, each fun sized candy has about 2.5 teaspoons of sugar, and if a kid brings home 100 pieces, that will add up to 250 teaspoons of sugar or 3,700 calories of pure sugar! The average teenage boy already eats over 500 calories a day of sugar on average (not considering Halloween candy in the mix). So just 5 fun sized candies each day will add an extra 12.5 teaspoons of sugar (that is 1/4 cup!), which is an extra 187 calories of nutrient-void candy. If they are eating 5 pieces a day, it will take them 20 days to eat the 100 pieces – so that is an extra 3,700 calories of sugar in less than 3 weeks!!
What’s a Parent to Do?
American kids already are getting way too much sugar in their daily diets. But trick or treating really takes them over the edge. So what is a parent to do about all that candy laying around?
There has been a rise in the number of kids diagnosed with ADD, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Now 11% of all school-aged children has ADHD, and 1 out of every 5 high school boys will receive an ADHD diagnosis. This represents a 40% increase in the past decade, which is raising many questions among experts – such as are ADHD medications being overused?
But what is leading to this increase, and what if many of these cases were simply a food sensitivity? According to this NPR article, a study conducted on one hundred 4-8 year olds in the Netherlands and published on February 5, 2011 in the Lancet Journal, found that 64% of diagnosed cases of ADHD was actually caused by a hypersensitivity to food; and when the food was removed, the symptoms improved. According to the lead author of the study, Dr. Lidy Pelsser, “we have got good news — that food is the main cause of ADHD,” she says. “We’ve got bad news — that we have to train physicians to monitor this procedure because it cannot be done by a physician who is not trained.”
Rarely are parents of kids with ADHD given any nutritional/supplementary options, they are simply given the diagnosis and sent home with a prescription for ADHD medication. But these medications are not without risk, including decreased appetite, depression and mood disorders, increased blood pressure, and more. So if the root cause of the inattention is food sensitivities, then shouldn’t we be treating the attention and behavior issues by first identifying and eliminating any offending foods, and adding in nutritional supplements; and if those fail – resorting to the medication?
So until doctors start to recognize and treat ADHD in this way, parents can educate themselves and find a practitioner that can help them navigate this approach to treating focus and attention issues. Although there is a percentage of kids who nutritional approaches won’t offer a full recovery, according to the study out of the Netherlands, a significant number of kids will benefit from nutritional changes. The only downside is that a food elimination diet it is not as easy as popping a pill every day. But even those that end up taking medications, many will also benefit from nutritional approaches and certain supplements.
What are the 3 most common foods associated with ADHD-like symptoms?
These are 3 of the most common things to consider with regard to ADHD, but there are a number of other foods/substances that could be causing focus and attention problems – including high fructose corn syrup/sugar, pesticides, mercury, soy, eggs, corn – to just name a few.
How could food sensitivities create ADHD-like symptoms?
Nutrient deficiencies could be to blame. The small intestine is where most nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. Consuming foods that the body is sensitive to can cause damage to the small intestine, which can lead to issues in nutrient absorption and utilization. Another reason for nutrient deficiencies could be extremely picky eating, or a highly processed diet that is lacking in macro and micronutrients.
Some of the most common nutrient deficiences found in kids with ADHD are:
Food elimination diets if not properly done or supplemented, could themselves result in nutrient deficiencies; so working with a Nutritionist or qualified health practitioner is recommended when embarking on a nutritional program to address ADHD. Doing a food elimination diet is one way to determine if there are sensitivities, but there are also tests that can be done to determine sensitivities.
There are other steps that can be taken before resorting to medication – such as having a full neurotransmitter test done. This test requires just a single urine collection, and using the results, the lab will create a custom amino acid powder or a custom cream to specifically address and rebalance the neurotransmitter issues.
Contact Sara if you are interested in a custom nutritional protocol to address focus & attention for you or your child; and/or for more information about food sensitivity or neurotransmitter testing: email@example.com
As a family, we stopped drinking cow’s milk over a year ago, for a number of reasons:
After quite a bit of resistance initially from the kids, and trying out a number of alternative milks, we settled on our choices:
But recently, we have been reading about the negative health implications of carrageenan – which is added to many alternative milks to keep the ingredients from separating, and also to give it a good “mouth feel.” According to Rodale, carrageenan wreaks havoc on our gut health, and could even be a potential carcinogen. According to Ayurvedic medicine, if our digestion is not healthy, then we are not healthy. Although rice milk generally does not contain carrageenen, the news about arsenic in rice had us rethinking giving our kids rice milk too.
Frustrated, yesterday my hubby said, “maybe we should go back to organic cows milk.” I thought about it for a second, but I decided that I had a better solution – homemade cashew milk, and this recipe is unlike any other cashew milk because it is high in calcium and omega 3s!
THE BEST ALTERNATIVE MILK:
Cashew milk is the easiest nut milk to make because it does not require straining. It is very delicious and energizing – give it a try!! Cashews are naturally high heart protective healthy monounsaturated fats, zinc, protein, copper, manganese, vitamin K, and magnesium (which over 70% of the population is deficient, key for bone health).
It’s Back to School time again. That means it is time to ditch the “summer brain” and get ready to focus and pay attention in class. These 5 foods can literally feed our brains, boosting it’s functioning and focus to help kids stay on task at school.
One of the best sources of omega 3s is fish, especially fatty fish like salmon or tuna. Omega 3 fatty acids are brain foods, critical for healthy brain functioning and focus – and unfortunately, many Americans are deficient in omega 3s. My kids love tuna salad for lunch, which offers a mid-day brain boost. You can roll it up into a wrap, do a tuna salad with crackers, or I have even rolled it in seaweed to make “sushi.” But big fish like tuna can be high in mercury, so we choose Wild Planet brand tuna, because it has half the amount of mercury (compared to conventional brands), and a higher omega 3 content. Omega 3s not only help with brain functioning, but also are shown to boost mood, reduce inflammation, protect the heart, improve skin, and much more – one of the most important nutrients all Americans need. Additionally, tuna is a good source of protein and B6. People with focus or sleep issues tend to be B6 deficient and can also benefit from B6.
Taking a fish oil supplement is another good way to get EPA and DHA omega 3s – in our house, we like Barleans Omega Swirls, which now is available in a convenient to go packet. Omega Swirls 9 times more absorbable than other fish oil, and come in several delicious flavors.
2. Chia seeds
Walter Willet of Harvard Health recommends that we have fish or fish oils a few times a week, and a vegetarian omega 3 source every day. My favorite vegetarian source for omega 3s are chia seeds – because in addition to the omega 3s, these little seeds offers so much more. Chia seeds fill you up, offer lasting energy/endurance, and form a gel which helps to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. In addition, chia seeds are an excellent source of fiber, antioxidants & minerals. Chia seeds are rich in the ALA form of omega 3s, which the body needs to convert to the EPA/DHA forms. Chia doesn’t really taste like anything and can be easily added to many foods. Top your oatmeal, boost your smoothies, or add to your baking. I also like to make a quick chia pudding – just add a couple Tablespoons of chia seeds to a half cup of your favorite non-dairy milk (I like coconut), add a little vanilla, and a touch of your favorite all natural sweetener (like agave or stevia), and let it thicken for a few minutes. Voila – you have a delicious & nutritious pudding!
Look for foods boosted with chia seeds, like San Diego based Whales Tails torchia chips, and Nuttzo peanut free multi-seed nut butters – both great additions to the lunchbox!
3. Cacao –
A recent study showed that eating chocolate helped people to perform math problems better. Instead of a Hershey bar before math class, I recommend having something made with cacao, the key ingredient in chocolate that is good for our brains. I like to add local brand Sunfood‘s raw organic cacao to smoothies (try this Choco Banana Smoothie), I also make raw energy bars with it, dark chocolate black bean brownies, and you could even make homemade chocolate almond milk, just add cacao and your favorite natural sweetener. Cacao also is one of the best food sources of magnesium, which tends to have a calming effect on the nervous system, and introduces more oxygen rich blood to the brain. The majority of the population and up to 95% of kids with ADHD are magnesium deficient. Some signs of magnesium deficiency – poor memory/focus, headaches, dizziness, fear/anxiety/uneasiness, increased bone fractures, restless leg syndrome, hyperactivity, insomnia, constipation, apathy, and more. Kids who tend to fidget or are hyperactive might benefit from taking magnesium before school, because it will help to calm them down and boost focus. Another way to get magnesium is by taking a magnesium supplement, my kids like the raspberry lemon flavored Natural Calm. Too much magnesium can have a laxative effect, so start with the lowest dose possible.
Protein-rich eggs offer lasting energy which is key for focus and attention. Another focus-boosting nutrient that eggs offer is choline – which is important for brain development and memory. Over 90% of Americans are estimated to be deficient in choline. But don’t just eat the egg whites, because the choline and other important nutrients like lutein are all found in the egg yolks. I always recommend buying the organic or pastured eggs, which are naturally richer in omega 3s. A 2010 Penn State University study showed that hens raised in pastures laid eggs that had double the vitamin E and 2.5 times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids compared to eggs from their caged conventional counterparts. If you can’t find pastured eggs, go for organic eggs, or organic omega 3 rich eggs that come from Chickens that are fed flax. Learn more about pasture-raised eggs, and read more about the many nutritional benefits of eggs. You can find pastured eggs at your local Whole Foods market.
Rich in antioxidants, berries help to reduce oxidative stress in the body and the brain. Strawberries also contain a flavenoid called fisetin which can improve the memory. Blueberries have Vitamin K, manganese, and vitamin C and have been shown in lab tests to help improve the cognitive function of elderly lab rats.
Getting Back On task
Getting back into the swing of school after Summer break can sometimes require a short adjustment period. Eating foods (or supplements) rich in Omega 3s, magnesium, zinc, antioxidants, protein and B Vitamins can help kids to focus and get on task throughout the year. Also avoiding foods with artificial colors, preservatives and too much sugar is a smart strategy. A supplement called On Task might be another option to consider for kids that continue to have trouble staying focused in school. On Task contains magnesium, B vitamins, Vitamin C, and zinc, to help improve the brain’s ability to focus and stay on task. Invented by parents whose child was diagnosed with ADHD, OCD, and Tourette’s disorder, who were looking for a natural solution like On Task. They could not find one, so they created On Task. Read about their story, and some of the testimonials of customers.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
Note: This article was originally written in 2011, it was edited in 2014.
September is ADHD Awareness Month.
There are a number of physiological reasons that kids might be having trouble focusing or paying attention in school, including and not limited to – ADHD. In the past decade, cases of ADHD have risen from 6.9% to 9% according to the CDC. It is estimated the 3-5% of school aged kids have ADHD, with more boys receiving the diagnosis. Many cases of ADHD also go undiagnosed each year. But many cases of ADHD are also misdiagnosed.
12 Possible Causes for ADHD-Type Symptoms:
There are numerous reasons that can lead to poor attention and focus. Below is a list of 12 common culprits of underlying medical issues, including but not limited to ADHD that can cause problems with mood, behavior, focus, and attention in class.
Read: Breakfast of Champions for some good breakfast tips to help your kid get off on the right start for school. But while a better diet can offer small or large improvements in attention, it may not be the full answer for everyone.
Click here for some other possible causes of ADHD-type symptoms. A child with any of the above disorders is not a ‘bad’ kid, their brain might just not be functioning optimally – even with an improved diet. Some people might benefit from nutritional supplements, therapy, medication, or a combination. If you have tried all the dietary and allergy elimination approaches and still suspect that another issue that could be affecting your child’s attention, see below for a short list of books and websites that can offer more information. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a personal nutrition consultation. A study from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that eating a healthy diet in childhood can be associated with small increases in I.Q.
© copyright 2016 Sara Vance