Morning at LeAnn Nickelsen’s home means breakfast. And no one—not her 12-year-old twins or husband—leaves home without it.
Breakfast is, she believes, just that important for the body–and the brain.
Mrs. Nickelsen, a Certified Brain Research Trainer and former teacher, recently came to Orlando to speak to Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) teachers and staff about “Brain Smart Foods & Activities that Maximize Learning.” She was hosted by the OCPS Food and Nutrition Services Department and the Winter Park Health Foundation.
The nutritional quality of the food that goes into the mouth, she explained, has a big impact on how well the brain will function during the school day, and how much learning takes place.
“As you eat so shall you think,” is one of her favorite mottos.
Other health experts agree. At a recent meeting in Washington D.C., called the Learning Connection Summit, sponsored by the GENYOUth Foundation and including stakeholders and students from around country, the focus was on the strong link between exercise and nutrition and how students perform and behave at school.
Scientists are learning more about that connection, and at the session presented colorful images of the brains of 9- and 10-year-old children to show how exercise sparks activity in the areas of the brain used in cognitive functioning. They also discussed how fitness enhanced language processing, reading, spelling and arithmetic scores on standardized tests.
Dr. Ronald Kleinman, with the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, pointed out to participants that brain activity needed for processing numerical information is enhanced in children who have eaten breakfast, and that greater mental effort is required for mathematical thinking in children who skip breakfast.
It was also noted that participation in school breakfast increases school attendance and has been linked to an improved ability of students to stay on task, solve problems, participate in class and work independently—and fewer psychosocial problems.
The goal, said Mrs. Nickelsen, is to have a healthy working brain—something that requires exercise, water and good nutrition and adequate sleep. And it is just as important to teach children about how foods and behaviors affect the brain and how they feel and perform so they are motivated to adopt healthy habits.
“I want to eat well so I can be the best I can be in all areas of my life,” explained Mrs. Nickelsen, and she hopes to instill that feeling in teachers, as well as parents and families.
One of the best ways to start a brain healthy day is with a nutritious breakfast, something that might seem overwhelming amidst the rush among family members to get cleaned up, dressed and organized for school and work. But it’s not as complicated as you might think.
Mrs. Nickelsen’s formula for a good breakfast includes fruit or 100 percent fruit juice (with calcium) or milk + protein + whole grain (complex carbohydrate). Her formula refers to whole grain and other high fiber, low-fat, low sugar carbohydrates (complex carbohydrates) rather than sugary pastries and cereals that will cause a child’s blood sugar to drop in 30 to 60 minutes.
Breakfast at the Nickelsen household includes an Omega-3 egg or two a day. Egg yolks contain choline which when broken down in the body can help build memory. She suggests people talk to their doctors about eating eggs daily because there are differing medical opinions about how frequently eggs should be eaten.
Nickelsen family members also eat steel cut oatmeal—a healthy complex carbohydrate—two times a week, and they have blueberries daily. She calls blueberries “brain berries” because they are full of antioxidants.
Snacks are important as well because the brain needs a steady supply of two main fuels—oxygen and glucose—to function. So in addition to eating three balanced meals, Mrs. Nickelsen said the brain benefits from several small snacks. Like meals, these should be healthy.
Good snack choices include nuts—as long as there are no allergies—bananas, apples, raisins, grapes, oranges, other fresh fruits, as well as carrots, celery, red peppers, broccoli, cucumbers and other vegetables (even pack a dip if kids want it). Other options she suggests include whole wheat crackers and real cheese, yogurt with no food coloring and low sugar, pretzel rods wrapped in turkey and trail mixes.
If students take lunches to school, Mrs. Nickelsen recommends it contain a protein, complex carbohydrate and very little sugar. Her suggested formula for a great lunch—protein + whole grain + fruit + vegetable + milk.
Water also is crucial, making up more than 70 percent of the brain. She said the number one reason for daytime sleepiness is dehydration and recommends children take a clean water bottle to school daily and use it. “Students who are well-hydrated,” she said, “are more friendly, well-reasoned, attentive and coherent.”
When you are looking at a change to a healthier, brain-friendly food plan, it is good to set goals and take small steps rather than trying to do everything at once, Mrs. Nickelsen said. Parents could start with taking their children grocery shopping and together picking out some fruits and vegetables. Or, families could set some exercise goals—like taking a walk together once or twice a week. (Exercise helps regenerate brain cells, noted Mrs. Nickelsen.)
And don’t forget to encourage adequate sleep because “the brain consolidates memories and information during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep.”
“Foods have a direct impact on our state of mind and we need our children to be in the most alert, focused, positive, learning states of mind,” she said. “By feeding them a variety of healthy foods daily and making sure they are getting the amount of foods listed on www.choosemyplate.gov, your child’s learning can be maximized.”
For more information about the brain—everything from basics to the latest research– check out www.BrainFacts.org, an initiative of the Kavli Foundation, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and the Society for Neuroscience, all working to advance brain research.