As a parent, you would have seen at least one child who can’t sit still, fidgets all the time and seems to lack a seemingly “normal” attention span, struggling with concentration. In fact, attention deficit has become one of the most common problems affecting children today.
Nutrition plays a huge part in how we feel and behave, and this is especially true for children. The correct, and preferably optimum, nutrition can help to improve mood and concentration, alleviate learning and behavioural difficulties and put your child on the path to a healthy, happy life, says internationally acclaimed psychologist and nutritional expert, Patrick Holford.
“Being able to stay focused on a task, both in the developmental stages and at school, is a key part of maximising a child’s abilities,” says Holford.
He advises a five-point plan that will help balance your child’s mood and improve their concentration – simply through what they eat.
1. Blood sugar balance – the key to concentration
Sugar creates imbalances in energy that can contribute to erratic behaviour and mood changes. Sweets, chocolates, cakes, biscuits, most breakfast cereals, soft drinks, puddings and many other foods contain sugar in one of its many forms.
“When checking labels, look out for sucrose, glucose, maltose, dextrose, inverted sugar syrup, golden syrup, corn syrup and treacle. Also check for additives – artificial colourings, sweeteners, preservatives and flavourings – as they can all contribute to adverse behaviour, particularly the orange colouring (tartrazine) found in some orange squashes and sweets. Avoid giving your child processed foods and opt instead for natural and sugar-free alternatives,” says Holford.
2. Establish healthy eating
Many parents make the vital mistake of weaning their children onto sweet fruit and “baby cereals” – which are packed with sugar and will lead to a diet defined by what stimulates their sweet taste buds. Holford recommends teaching your child to love a variety of foods, especially vegetables, from a young age. By doing this, you will be setting them up for a healthy appetite later on.
“Use your imagination to make fresh food more exciting – tempt them with bite-sized snacks of cherry tomatoes or grapes, baked apples or bananas with sultanas and creamy Greek yoghurt. Cut vegetables into fun shapes to eat with dips, or purée and ‘disguise’ them in sauces and soups,” suggests Holford.
“White bread, rice and pasta have their nutrients stripped out of them, so rather serve wholemeal varieties which are also more filling and contain fibre to encourage healthy digestion,” continues Holford.
3. Food for the brain
Some fats, like saturated varieties found in processed meats and fried foods, are bad for your child’s health, while others are essential and a deficiency could negatively impact their behaviour. The brain and nervous system needs a good supply of fat to function and develop effectively. To ensure your child gets enough of the right essential fats, Holford recommends the following three choices:
a) Serve oily fish three times a week, i.e. salmon, mackerel, sardines or fresh tuna (tinned tuna has had the natural oil taken out of it).
b) Add seeds and nuts to their diet. The best formula is to mix one part pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds with one part linseeds. Store in a glass jar in the fridge and grind them in a coffee grinder before serving. A heaped tablespoon of freshly-ground seeds on their cereal or sprinkled on soups or in salads every day works wonders for little brains.
c) Supplement essential fats. This could either be a fish oil (which contains Omega 3 fats) or a seed oil (which contains a blend of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats). These are available as liquids or capsules from most health food shops.
4. Supplement the diet
It’s difficult to get all the nutrients we need from our diet, so to be sure your child is not deficient by supplementing their diet with a good-quality daily multivitamin and mineral designed for children. Most small children cannot swallow tablets, so choose chewable, flavoured options to make it easier for them.
Patrick Holford’s Smart Kids Chewable Omegas provide a blend of Omega 3 essential fatty acids from fish oil with added Vitamin D and E for children. It is available from Dis-Chem, selected pharmacies and health stores.
5. Eliminate allergens from the diet
The most common food allergens are wheat, gluten (the protein found in wheat, barley, rye and to a lesser extent oats), dairy foods, eggs, citrus fruits, tea, coffee, chocolate and soya.
“If you suspect your child is intolerant to a particular food, for example, if they react badly after eating certain foods, or they seem to crave a particular food – eliminate it from their diet and monitor the reaction. If after two weeks you see no difference in behaviour or symptoms, reintroduce it and see if there is a reaction. If not, then try a different suspected food group until you find what’s bothering them,” suggests Holford.
You can also test for more than 113 foods simultaneously with an allergy test, which can be done in most pathology laboratories. It is a quick and effective way of establishing what is affecting your child and will help you to change and plan their diet accordingly.