Breakfast is essential for the brain, researchers advise.
Did you know around 30% of students in Hong Kong skip breakfast? Here’s some food for thought: in two internationally recognized tests, students who ate breakfast every day performed better academically than their counterparts who skipped breakfast. In fact, students who ate breakfast were found to be 18 months ahead of those that missed according to research. That’s not all: multiple studies have also linked a healthy breakfast to improved memory, concentration levels, behaviour, mood and lowered stress levels.
This makes sense: breakfast provides your child’s body and brain with fuel after an overnight fast. Without breakfast, a student is effectively running on empty. It’s like trying to start a car with no fuel.
Graeme Bradshaw, IMI’s Senior Naturopath and Founding Director explains. “Our brains need glucose to function. Although fat reserves can be called on, breakfast typically restores glucose levels before children start their day at school. Functional hypoglycaemia, also known as low blood sugar, is a widespread problem amongst students in Hong Kong. Irritability, argumentativeness, lack of concentration, anxiety, mood swings and headaches – these are just some of the symptoms of hypoglycaemia when a child skips breakfast.”
Does it matter what kind of breakfast kids eat? Absolutely. What your child eats can set the tone for the day.
Graeme shares six breakfast do’s and don’ts to boost your child’s brainpower and a winning recipe to kickstart the day.
Eat eggs, eat protein
The best brain-boosting breakfast food is egg, says Graeme. Why? Eggs contains choline – an amino acid critical for brain performance. On average children’s diets are short of 125 mg of choline, which is exactly the amount found in an egg, Graeme explains.
“Choline – which is a neurotransmitter – plays an important role in memory, alertness and intelligence. You don’t want your child to be short of it. Think of it like this – the little chicken actually grows its brain and nervous system from a yolk while in the egg! It’s one of nature’s brain foods. Add healthy carbs to a breakfast of eggs for brain fuel too,” he explains.
Eggs also pack a mighty protein punch. Eating more proteins and less sugars for breakfast equals more amino acids and choline for the brain. Amino acids help to stabilize your child’s blood sugar and insulin levels, so they have steady energy to get through the day.
Some children have egg intolerances or allergies. Fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, sugar-free nut butters and low-fat dairy are also good sources of protein.
Say no to box cereals
In our busy lives, it’s easy to turn to what is quick and easy. But breakfast cereals – even seemingly harmless cornflakes and rice puffs – can result in your child consuming over half of their recommended daily allowance before they get to school, according to research.
Sugared cereals have a high glycemic index, Graeme advises. Quickly absorbed by the body, they cause a peak in blood sugar levels, which the body responds to by releasing excess insulin. Often, blood sugar levels then drop dramatically about an hour later and, by the end of the first lesson, the offending cereal results in low blood sugar. Not only do children run out of mental energy to last through the morning, low blood sugar also affects their mood, concentration and memory. The brain then searches for more sugar encouraging children to reach for a sweet snack at recess. And so the rollercoaster of blood sugar highs and lows continues throughout the day.
Oats, on the other hand, release energy slowly, Graeme advises. “While cooking oats or soaking them overnight, sprinkle in some seeds for a boost of magnesium and B vitamins. These are critical brain nutrients. But if you don’t have time in the morning for anything other than a bowl of box cereal, Weetabix has less sugar than other breakfast cereals. Add blueberries – a special fruit for powering up brain performance – and ground nuts to your child’s bowl too,” advises Graeme.
Choose brain-boosting breads
Once refined, whole grains are stripped of vital minerals and B vitamins. Children miss out on chromium, zinc, magnesium, manganese and the vitamin B complex that are needed for energy release from food and for the brain to perform at an optimal level.
White bread. Croissants. Teacakes are out. Heavy rye bread & pumpernickel bread are in, according to Graeme. Whilst eggs on rye bread are an ideal way to kickstart the day, a poached egg and wholemeal toasty dabbles or similar is a more likely choice, he says.
Get your fruit and vegetable fix
For a delicious brain beverage, whizz up a smoothie with banana, blueberries, nuts and seeds. Add a high-quality fish oil and/or supplements for a bigger brain-boost.
If your child eats avocados, they can be used as a smash under eggs or as a tasty topping on a slice of healthy toast. Any food with a relatively high fat content takes some time to digest, which helps to keep the blood sugar balanced, Graeme explains. Butter too acts as fuel for active children.
Strengthen your brain with supplements
The brain is a hungry organ when it comes to nutrients. Ensuring your child gets enough essential nutrients to start their day can be challenging. Research shows that if these are missed at breakfast, they are less likely to be compensated for later in the day. In fact, even if three meals are eaten, the nutritional density of the foods needs to be high to provide optimal levels. And the more a child’s diet is limited to sweet foods, the more important it is to add a supplement to make up the gaps.
At IMI, young clients have benefitted from Seeking Health Optimal Multivitamin Chewable. A great-tasting pure and potent formula that is easily absorbed, the multi-supplement contains magnesium, B complex, zinc, Omega-3s and more for optimal brain health.
Vital Nutrients Ultra Pure Fish Oil 1400 Liquid has been given the seal of approval by students. Part of the brain structure, Omega 3s are essential for brain development and brain function, particularly learning and memory. Research indicates that increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids that school-age children get not only improves performance in school, it raises their serotonin levels to calm and improve moods too.
“We recommend fish oil for everybody, since it is never adequately provided by the diet,” advises Graeme.
Be aware of food allergies and intolerances
While food allergies are generally immediate and obvious, food intolerances can lead to a low grade form of inflammation that can cause headaches, chronic fatigue, poor concentration, hyperactivity and more. IMI offers functional medicine laboratory tests to identify food allergies and intolerances.
If your child has gluten, dairy or other food intolerances, it can make it that much more challenging to prepare a healthy meal. Fortunately, gluten and dairy free options are becoming increasingly available. There are plenty of health shops in Hong Kong, and supermarket chains and Marks and Spencer also offer intolerance-friendly foods.
Shop around to find the ones your child prefers but do keep in mind to minimize refined products – for example, many gluten free products contain super refined flour.
Ultimately, each child is different and has different nutritional needs. Some may have allergies, or certain deficiencies in their nutrition profile, or different genetics. Don’t guess, test. IMI offers a range of comprehensive tests to identify the culprits impacting your child’s body and brain.
Can you bring your child to the table?
Yes, you can. It may not appear that way at first, but your child will eventually copy your diet. Do your best to be a positive role model – for your health and for the long-term health of your child. Establish healthy breakfast habits early in life and you’ll not only set them up for success at school, you’ll also help to protect them from brain challenges later on in life.