Food for Thought
We know that growing bodies need the right type and amount of food to ensure they grow well but what about children’s minds? How does what we put into those growing bodies affect their growing minds and what about our brightest kids? How do we keep their highly active minds nourished? Our Gifted and Talented writer explains….
Children who are growing rapidly and developing brain function need regular nutritious meals to provide high levels of energy for optimal growth. Energy for the brain comes from digested food that releases sugars into the blood stream. High ability children think efficiently; however their busy brains use up greater amounts of glucose energy in the process, according to neuroscientist, John Geake. Developmentally advanced children need regular supplies of glucose energy to provide sufficient energy for the brain to fuel heightened cognitive performance.
High performance racing cars need high octane fuel; likewise, high ability children need high energy stores to power their rapid and complex thinking. The brain has developed ways of checking and adjusting its own energy needs but requires access to greater amounts of glucose energy to keep the brain supplied. Cognitive energy levels are best maintained when nutritious foods are slowly digested to allow a gradual release of glucose into the blood, which is transported to the brain over time.
Breakfast – to break the fast
Breakfast is a critical meal for all children. Their bodies have been deprived of food for hours during sleep and they need energy from a nutritious breakfast to provide the energy required to get them through the day. Students who rush out of the house without breakfast often suffer from headaches, dizziness, irritability, declines in concentration and reduced memory function around mid-morning. This is not conducive to optimal, sustained focus, memory function and academic performance. A breakfast which includes lean protein as well as complex carbohydrates allows the body to slowly release energy, enabling the brain to function at peak efficiency for an extended period.
Stable blood sugar is key
When gifted children experience depleted levels of blood sugar, they experience cravings for sugar and may develop borderline hypoglycaemia. There is a tendency for them to crave sweet, sugary food to provide a quick increase in blood sugar levels. Sugary foods and simple carbohydrates provide a surge in blood sugar levels but these levels crash again as the glucose stores are used quickly, setting up a pattern of fluctuating blood sugar levels with associated emotional ‘meltdowns’ and cravings for another quick sugar ‘fix’, whereas low-glycaemic foods decrease cravings and increase attentional focus.
Little and often and healthy
High-ability children who arrive home tired and irritable at the end of the school day may be suffering from depleted blood sugar levels following their concentrated efforts at school. Another nutritious snack is needed before sitting down to complete homework. Healthy snacks throughout the day provide a steady release of energy. To ensure sufficient energy for thinking, these snacks should include fruit, vegetables, wholegrain and protein foods rather than sweets, cakes, biscuits and sugary drinks.
Water, water, water
Fluid – preferably plain water, not high sugar or caffeinated drinks – throughout the day is critical to hydrate the body and provide the biochemical environment in which neurons synapse. A study at Yale University provided children with sugar, equivalent to the amount found in a soft drink, and found that adrenaline levels were increased more than five times their normal levels and this continued up to five hours after consuming the sugar. Water is essential as a lack of fluid will quickly lead to reduced brain function, irritability and headaches as well as placing stress upon kidneys, especially in hot weather.
Psychiatrist, ADHD specialist, and author of “Making a Good Brain Great”, Dr Daniel Amen, describes good nutrition as “brain medicine”, highlighting the improvement in cognition, focus, memory, mood stability, behaviour and stamina achieved by eating well. He maintains that consuming the wrong foods leads to distractibility, tiredness, irritability, sugar cravings and results in shrinkage of the decision-making parts of the brain.
An everyday healthy, balanced diet
A gifted child’s day should begin with breakfast, including lean protein, fruit and whole grains to prepare for the intense focus required at school. Protein helps to balance blood sugar levels, improves focus and concentration. Eating breakfast is correlated with better school attendance rates, improved attention spans, fewer behavioural difficulties, increased academic scores and fewer mental health problems. A nutritious lunch, with snacks at morning and afternoon breaks will equip a child to concentrate well in class, think clearly and maintain sufficient energy for the brain to function well throughout the day and into the evening. Active brains don’t function efficiently without nutritious food to generate sustained cognitive energy.
Elaine Aron, author of “The Highly Sensitive Child”, refers to the heightened sensitivity of “children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything.” She mentions that these children are often intellectually, creatively and emotionally gifted. Dr Linda Silverman (Gifted Development Centre, Colorado), describes many of the gifted children in her studies who exhibited early behavioural difficulties, as having a history of allergies, especially food allergies related to milk, wheat, sugar, corn and glutens.
The vagus nerve relays information between the gut and the brain, including information from and to other organs, along the way. When the gut is out of balance or irritated by certain foods, this has an impact upon cognition, mood and behaviour. Identifying and eliminating any food intolerances or allergies can have a significant and beneficial impact upon a child’s cognitive functioning, behavioural issues and emotional stability.
Small adjustments to diet can provide enormous benefits for children. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, nuts and seeds, are useful in strengthening the central nervous system, for cell membranes and myelination in the brain. Fruit and vegetables are described as ‘superfoods’ as they strengthen memory function. Likewise, foods rich in antioxidants enhance learning capabilities. Spinach, blueberries and walnuts (they even look like mini-brains) are regarded as some of the best foods for supporting brain function.
Michele Juratowitch is Director of Clearing Skies, providing counselling, study skills seminars for gifted students; advocacy and parenting seminars; professional development and consultancy in schools. Michele was awarded a Churchill Fellowship, conducts STEAM Residentials for gifted girls and is co-author of Make a Twist: Curriculum differentiation for gifted students.
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