Remember Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign from the 80’s dedicated to educating kids about the dangers of doing drugs?  One memorable commercial had the egg frying in the pan and the slogan – this is your brain on drugs.   The slogan for the commercial with the fried egg today could be “this is your brain on sugar.”

Not Just Empty Calories

We all know that super sweet foods and drinks are not good for us.  But mounting evidence is revealing that they are not just harmless empty calories.  Several studies have already linked consumption of sugar and high fructose corn syrup to obesity and increased risk of a host of diseases – including diabetes, heart disease, and even certain cancers.  But one of the newest
studies out of UCLA, indicates that added sugars might just “make you dumber.”  Fortunately, the study also revealed a magic bullet that can make your brain work smarter, even reversing some of the effects of fructose – omega 3s.

In the study, UCLA researchers put rats in a maze and gave them a few days to navigate and remember how to get around. Then they removed the rats from the maze for a 6 week period.  During this time, one group of rats were fed an omega-3-rich diet, the other two groups consumed omega 3 deficient diets; one of which also drank a fructose solution in place of water.  After the six weeks period on these diets, the researchers put the rats back in the maze to see how well they recalled it and performed.

The average American consumes roughly 142 pounds of added sugar a year (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture).  The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to 8 teaspoons a day total.  Not an easy task considering 1 can of soda contains about 10 teaspoons alone.  The average American consumes more than 3 times the recommended amount of added sugar each day.  Over half of all 8 years olds drink a soda each day, and one third of teenage boys are drinking 3 cans of sodas per day.

Researchers point to insulin – which affects not only blood sugar, but it also the way in which brain cells function.  When we consume too many sweetened beverages and foods, our bodies become less able to process them, leading to a condition called insulin resistance – which can also lead to stubborn weight gain and even diabetes and other diseases overtime.

UCLA researchers were sure to clarify that there is a difference between naturally-occurring sugars, and those that are manufactured and added to foods and drinks. This is an important distinction, because the brain relies on sugar or glucose as it’s primary fuel.  Research shows that too much added sugar, can actually deprive your brain of glucose, compromising the brain’s power to concentrate, remember, and learn.“We’re not talking about naturally occurring fructose in fruits, which also contain important antioxidants,” explained Gomez-Pinilla. “We’re more concerned about the fructose in high-fructose corn syrup, which is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative.”  Whole fruit also contains fiber, which helps to prevent insulin spikes and many American diets are lacking.  But once a person has insulin resistance or diabetes, their body can even have trouble processing the naturally occurring sugars in fruits and other foods.

Luckily, taking omega-3s appears to counteract the negative effect of the fructose, even potentially reversing insulin resistance. The omega 3 rich diet had other protective effects beyond our brains.  The rats who consumed less omega-3s had higher triglyceride, glucose and insulin levels: which is associated with a condition called Metabolic Syndrome. But the good news – the study found that omega 3s could reverse the insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes).

The best sources of omegas 3 fatty acids are fatty cold-water fish like salmon, fish oil supplements, chia, flax and hemp seeds, tree nuts, and seaweed/algae supplements.

So what is the bottom line if you want your brain to work smarter?  Get your omega-3s, and limit your intake of sugary foods and drinks.  And researchers say it is never too early to start.  “Our findings suggest that consuming DHA regularly protects the brain against fructose’s harmful effects,” said Gomez-Pinilla. “It’s like saving money in the bank. You want to build a reserve for your brain to tap when it requires extra fuel to fight off future diseases.”

Here is a list of eleven other foods that can boost brain functioning too.

Read more:

Team sports are good for kids, right…?

Sports like soccer, baseball, basketball and lacrosse provide kids with regular exercise, which is good for maintaining a healthy weight, bone development, coordination, and even improved performance in school (read these NY Times articles: How Exercise Fuels the Brain and Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter?)  Team sports also teach kids important lessons about sportsmanship, being “coachable,” and the importance of being a good team player.

So some parents might be scratching their heads wondering why their child actually gains weight during the soccer or softball season?  The dreaded “snack” schedule could be to blame. A recent study revealed that kids who participate in team sports consume more junk food than those that do not, read Huffington Post article Do Kids Who Play Team Sports Eat More Junkfood? Check out the sugar and calorie counts of some typical “snacks” that can follow those sports, and it will become crystal clear.   You don’t have to be a mathlete to figure this one out – an 85 pound kid can burn anywhere from 180 calories an hour playing a sport like softball or baseball to just over 400 calories an hour playing full court basketball.  But all of that can quickly come unraveling when well-intentioned parents roll out the post-game snacks, which typically can range anywhere from 250-500 calories.  Not to mention the amount of artificial colors, trans fats, MSG, and sugar kids are getting after the game.  Some experts have linked food dyes to ADD and other behavior problems, read more.

Typical Snack #1:

Totals: 390 calories, 11 g. fat, 46 g. of sugar (over 10 teaspoons), 5 different kinds of artificial colors, and MSG.

Made-Over Snack #1:

Totals: 165 calories, 4 g. of fat, 9 g. of sugar.  This made-over snack saves 225 calories, has close to 1/3 the fat, less than one fifth the sugar, and none of the artificial colors or MSG.

Typical Snack #2:

Totals: 260 calories, 3 g. of fat, 41 g. of sugar., high fructose corn syrup, red 40, blue 1

Made Over Snack #2:

Totals: 235 calories, 2.5 g. of fat, 23.9 g. of sugar (some naturally-occurring).  Saves 25 calories, and over 17 g. of sugar, and none of the artificial colors or high fructose corn syrup.  Provides some fiber and antioxidants too.

Typical Snack # 3:  The birthday/post-game snack.  Inevitably it will be someone’s birthday during the season – why not celebrate with donuts or cupcakes after the soccer game?  This is why…

Totals: 390 calories, 16 g. fat, 53 g. of sugar (over 13 teaspoons!). Contains trans fats, artificial colors and caffeine.

Made-Over Snack #3: You can still celebrate a birthday with a fun snack for the soccer team, just ditch the store-bought cupcakes for some healthier choices that won’t provide a whopping 400+ calories, and 3 days worth of added sugars and trans fats.  Here are a number of options that are healthier and still fun:

If you don’t believe me that these are typical post-game snacks, check out Soccer Mom on a Mission’s Video.  Notice everything from Krispy Kremes to rice crispy treats…

Get the Whole Team on Board

So what is a health conscious parent to do?  Avoid team sports all together?  Grab their kid and run before the snacks come out?  Or just speak up and request that snacks be healthy, or that each parent simply brings snack for their own child?  It’s not always easy to be “that parent” that always is speaking up about this kind of thing.  But more often than not, other parents are thinking the same thing, and are grateful that someone spoke up.  And sometimes, parents don’t realize how many calories, artificial colors, trans fats, and sugar they are feeding kids.  The first step to change is always – AWARENESS.

Unfortunately, no kid wants their parent to be the only one that brings ‘healthy’ snacks after a game, when everyone else is bringing donuts and cupcakes and sodas.  But when the whole team agrees to bring healthy snacks, then no one parent has to stand out as the one that only brings ‘healthy’ food.  When the whole team agrees to follow this plan, everyone benefits – and it could even be the difference between winning the trophy, or missing it by an inch.

A few seasons ago, I was so grateful to Nora, the team mom for my son’s baseball team.  She sent out an email at the beginning of the season requesting that all snacks be healthy and should help to “power up” the kids, not cause a sugar rush and drop.  And instead of the snack coming out at the end of the game – just as everyone was heading off to dinner, she suggested that they should come out in the dugout around inning 4 or 5.  That way, they could boost their energy to get through the rest of the game.  Guess what?  Their team made it all the way to the championship – winning the pennant that year.   How much the healthier snacks contributed, we can’t be sure.  But I can bet that professional baseball players don’t celebrate their games with donuts and sodas, or cupcakes and juice boxes.

Hungry Kids Will Eat…Pretty Much Whatever Is Around!

One of the oldest tricks in the book is to put out the healthy foods when kids are the hungriest – and after a hard game of soccer or basketball, they are going to be hungry. Why not take advantage of it – and put out oranges, bananas, raisins, and other healthy snacks?  This is a great approach for a picky eater too (read 20 Tips for Picky Eaters for more).  Our soccer coach a couple of seasons ago requested orange slices for a half time boost – and all the kids happily gobbled them up each game.  In fact, my daughter didn’t like orange slices until that season – now she loves them because that was what was offered, she was really hungry/thirsty, and all her teammates we gobbling them down.  Oranges are a wonderful snack for hard working athletes, they hydrate, provide natural sugars to replace lost glycogen/energy, and provide important lost minerals.  When healthy snacks come out during or after the game, kid’s bodies will feel and function better, and they will come to expect those kind of snacks instead of the junk food.

Treat Kids Like Athletes

So instead of the donuts, rice crispy treats, and cupcakes; the flavor-blasted chips and Cheez Its; the brightly colored sports drinks and sodas, and sticky sweet fruit treats and candies…let’s try to think about what we reach for after a workout, or what an athlete chooses. When we start to think about our kids as little athletes, and not just kids; that is when we start to feed them better post game snacks. Some good snack “rules”:

Post-game snacks should rehydrate (without artificial colors), replace lost energy & glycogen stores (without overflowing them), and help the body/muscles to heal and recover.  Junk food promotes inflammation, which works against recovery.  Too much sugar gets stored as fat. Artificial colors and trans fats just aren’t needed or good for their hard-working bodies.  Who knows?  Healthy snacks could be the difference between making the All Stars Team, and well, not.

Thank you so much to the parents, coaches, team moms, and bloggers/writers that are speaking up, spreading the word and offering healthy post-game snacks.  Please put your ideas for healthy  snacks in the comments below.

We can all either be part of the solution, or part of the problem. Which team are you on? I think Taylor Mali put it best in his poem, An Apple a Day is Not Enough.

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