Ever seen a child so full of energy that you thought – what did they eat? We have some tips that will have everyone asking what your kids have eaten, not because of their crazy hijinks but because they are able to harness, control and release their energy as well as have their calm moments. Before you know it, parents everywhere will be saying “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Before delving into specific foods, it’s important to remember that foods have a very real effect on all of us. Not only do their macronutrient contents contribute to how much energy we release and store within our body, key constituents can also have measurable effects on how we feel and how our nervous system functions. Like the old adage goes, we are what we eat.
We also want to be clear that we believe children having an abundance of energy is a wonderful, natural and necessary thing! However, there are circumstances when it’s best for the child to have a calm body and mind – for example in the classroom and before bed. These tips are designed taking all of this into consideration.
Foods that help
There’s totes to love about oats!
Traditionally used as a nervine and nutritive tonic, oats are a great option to feed your family. They exert a soothing action on the nervous system which is in part due to their mineral content. Oats are high in iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium and manganese – all of which play a role in nervous system function. Studies have also shown that oat extracts have a positive effect on both mental health and cognitive performance!
Oats have the added benefit of being delicious, filling, low GI, easy to include in recipes and good for the heart. Try making some overnight oats or porridge this week!
Omega-3 fatty acids:
Salmon and other cold water fish like sardines, herring, bluefish, and mackerel, are sources of essential omega-3 fatty acids which are necessary for brain development and function in children and adults.
Increasing evidence is suggesting that a lack of EPA and DHA may contribute to a broad range of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Omega-3 EPA and DHA are highly concentrated in the brain and nervous tissue, which is why intake of them is crucial for all ages!
Protein is made up of amino acids and numerous amino acids have a significant effect on our nervous system, effecting sleep, mood, anxiety and stress.
- Glutamine increases the production of GABA – an important inhibitory neurotransmitter of the brain which had a soothing and sedative effect on the nervous system. Normally, our body can make enough of this to meet our needs, however in times of stress a higher demand must be met.
- L-lysine and L-arginine together have been documented to reduce hormonal stress responses which can otherwise increase irritability and agitation.
- Tryptophan, tyrosine and phenylalanine are precursors for the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, all of which affect the brain helping with mood stability, focus and impulse control.
For these, and many more reasons, it’s important to have a source of protein in every meal of the day! This may include turkey, chicken, beef, fish, pork, eggs, tofu, cheese, oats, beans and/ or legumes.
The mineral magnesium is needed for nerve transmission of communications through the central nervous system. It also calms the central nervous system and is another important player involved in the making of serotonin.
Magnesium is found in lots of different foods. A few examples include:
- Green leafy vegetables: spinach, beet greens
- Whole grains
- Nuts: Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts, pine nuts
- Dark chocolate
Zinc & Iron:
Zinc and iron are the most concentrated metals in the brain and are involved in neural development throughout the nervous system. A lack of zinc has been linked with hyperactive behaviour while iron and zinc deficiency may hinder mental performance.
Therefore it’s important to keep the zinc and iron coming in via food!
Zinc is high in spinach, beef, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds and cashews, while iron is found in pumpkin seeds, meats, seafood, nuts, beans and tofu. Iron is absorbed best with vitamin C as well, so factor in capsicum, kiwifruit, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, berries and citrus fruits alongside these foods.
Chamomile, lavender, passionflower and lemon balm are all forms of herbal tea that have calming and soothing effects.
If you or your children don’t like tea so much (especially in the hot Australian summer), try brewing iced tea or using tea to make ice-blocks!
Foods that hinder
Sugar and white bread:
We bet these didn’t shock you, but it may surprise you as to why. There’s actually very limited evidence that sugar consumption causes hyperactivity. Sure, it provides energy but not necessarily ‘hyper’ behaviour in all children.
Highly refined and high-glycaemic index foods, like white bread and white sugar, are quickly absorbed into the blood stream. Where it may become problematic, is when the big spike in blood sugar caused by these foods is followed by a consequent drop. Low blood sugar levels can present with headaches, moodiness, crankiness, irritability, dizziness, shaking and extreme hunger.
Stick to lower-GI complex carbohydrates like wholegrain bread, pasta, brown rice and starchy vegetables. Fresh fruit is also a perfect options to sweeten meals or have as a snack in their own right!
Food additives include artificial colours, artificial sweeteners and preservatives. Again the research isn’t conclusive, however trends have emerged supporting their reduction in foods.
Studies have shown that children with hyperactive disorders respond favourably to diets free of additives (Nigg et al 2015). It has also been demonstrated that diets containing artificial colours or sodium benzoate preservatives, or both, increased hyperactivity in children within the general population. (McCann et al 2007).
Overall, the best approach for general health, nutrition and managing children’s well-being is a wholesome diet based on real food!