Choosing the Right Carbohydrates

Choosing the Right Carbohydrates

Small Changes, Big Results Series

Part III:  Good Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the main source energy for the body, but, as with fats, there are good and bad choices. In his book, The Ultramind Solution, Dr. Mark Hyman says that “carbohydrates are the single most important food for long term health.  Carbohydrates found in their natural form contain many essential nutrients and specialized chemicals that keep you healthy.” Since carbs are so important to our health, it is important to understand which carbohydrate choices are healthiest for us and our children.

Best Carbohydrates — Complex Carbs

Carbohydrates are important to our health by providing energy for our bodies and helping protein (in the form of tryptophan) enter the brain cells. The best carbohydrates for us and our children are called complex carbohydrates. These carbs digest slowly, enter the bloodstream gradually, and create a gentler rise in blood sugar. Whole grains, legumes, and vegetables are examples of complex carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates provide a stable supply of energy for our bodies. They slowly break down and release sources of sugar and prevent surges of blood sugar and insulin. The slowly released carbohydrates from whole, unprocessed plant-based foods also keep our serotonin levels balanced. Serotonin improves feelings of well-being, hopefulness, organization, and concentration. Low amounts of complex carbohydrates affect brain function, making you feel foggy- or light-headed. You also may have a hard time concentrating  and feel sad or depressed. Complex carbs contain all the vitamins and minerals, with the exception of Vitamin B, that are needed for our bodies to operate normally and optimally.

Bad Carbohydrates — Refined Sugars

Sugar and white flour are two of the worst carbohydrates. They are a type of simple carbohydrates called refined carbohydrates or refined sugars.  Refined carbohydrates are highly processed sugars which are easily digested and therefore are absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly.  They rapidly raise blood sugar levels (which is associated with memory problems). Refined sugar robs our bodies of B vitamins and nutrients needed to support a stable nervous system and blood sugar balance, thereby affecting our health, moods, attention, memory, and behavior.  Examples of refined carbohydrates are soda, white bread,  white rice, and candy.

Not all simple carbohydrates are considered bad.  Some simple sugars occur naturally in healthier food options, such as fruits and dairy.  In these more nutritious simple carbs, the natural sugars are digested along with the natural fiber and nutrients of the food, which slows the absorption of the sugar into the bloodstream. In contrast, refined sugars have little to no nutrients or fiber to slow sugar absorption.

Why Making Good Carb Choices is Important

Maintaining consistent blood sugar levels allows the brain to get the steady flow of sugar (glucose) needed to keep it fit and functioning. Spikes and fluctuations in blood sugar cause sugar overload, which can cause an individual to have very high, sometimes excessive energy, followed by low energy, sleepiness, or moodiness.  William Duffy (REFINED SUGAR: The Sweetest Poison of All) writes, “Excessive sugar has a strong mal-effect on the functioning of the brain. Too much sugar makes one sleepy; our ability to calculate and remember is lost.” This is definitely not a good prescription for learning!

What To Do About Kids Who Crave CarbohydratesHealthy Carbohydrates

Instead of getting rid of carbs, simply choose more of the right ones. Replace refined carbs with complex carbs, like whole grain cereals or bread, potatoes, corn, and beans. Substitute unhealthy simple carbs (refined sugars like soda and candy) with more nutritious ones, like fruits (apples, oranges, cherries, and grapefruits) and dairy (milk and low-fat yogurt).

Remember, it is about balance. The brain needs good fats, healthy carbs, and protein to function optimally. Teach your kids how to make wise choices. This will leave them feeling healthy, energetic, and empowered.

How is your year going so far? Have you been making any of these small changes in your diet? Next time, we are going to talk about the impact of movement on attention and learning.

 

Other Articles in the Small Changes, Big Results Series:

Share

Protein for Improved Focus and Attention

Small Changes, Big Results Series

Part II: Protein

“Is your child eating protein as a regular part of their diet?”  This is a question I often ask parents, because few people understand how important protein is to our brain function and learning.  High-quality protein foods allow optimal brain function so that a child feels motivated, energized, and focused, not hyperactive or inattentive.  Here is how it works.

How Protein is Processed in the Body

Foods with high-quality protein have amino acids, which provide the building blocks for neurotransmitters.  Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that allow the brain cells to communicate with each other.  Two of these neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine.  Serotonin improves feelings of well-being, hopefulness, organization, and concentration.  Dopamine is responsible for attention and focusing.  It allows you to maintain an action plan, regardless of other things trying to divert your attention. It also motivates and stimulates you to engage in life.

When protein enters the stomach, it is digested and exits the stomach as tryptophan.  Tryptophan aids in the production of dopamine and serotonin.  Tryptophan cannot cross the blood/brain barrier independently – it requires the assistance of carbohydrates/insulin – like a limo service to open the door and allow entrance.  Once in the brain, tryptophan converts to serotonin and helps us in organization, feelings of well-being, and satiation.   In fact, a study published in the September 2011 issue of Behavioral and Brain Functions showed that children with ADHD appear to have 50 percent lower levels of tryptophan.

(Although our brain needs carbohydrates to complete this process, they must be the right types of carbs.  We will discuss this topic in the next Small Changes, Big Results article, Choosing the Right Carbohydrates.)

The Small Change

As much as possible, increase protein at all meals.   Protein increases dopamine and serotonin and can stabilize blood sugar, whereas a high-carb meal increases insulin and can make your child feel foggy and have less energy.  Many children go to school after having a sugary carbohydrate breakfast, and many teens choose to go to school with no breakfast at all.  A low sugar breakfast and lunch with 12-20 grams of protein can make a vast difference in a learner’s performance.

Breakfast High in ProteinSome great sources of protein are:

  • Greek yogurt (be careful as dairy can often be an allergen)
  • Lean meats – chicken, turkey, and other lean meats
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Fish
  • Plant-based protein sources – beans, barley, brown rice, broccoli, potatoes, spinach, etc.
  • Protein shakes

Often times, asking students to reduce carbs/sugar can be difficult, so a great baby step is to add a high protein food item to their meal.  For instance, if they are having a waffle for breakfast (carb), they could add a hard-boiled egg.  They could also have an apple or celery with peanut butter.  It is a great compromise, and one that can help your child feel more focused.

Remember the goal is to balance your food consumption to provide optimum brain function.

Do you find it hard to get your child to eat protein? Have suggestions of things that you found that your child likes and have been easy to implement? As always, we would love to hear your thoughts.

 

Other Articles in the Small Changes, Big Results Series:

Share

Healthy Fats For Healthy Brains

Small Changes, Big Results Series

Part I: Healthy Fats

Every January, many adults make resolutions to get healthy by eating better, exercising more, and getting more sleep.

We seem to know that these things are important to our own health. And yet, the impact that diet, movement, and sleep have on attention and learning is frequently overlooked. As a parent or teacher, it isn’t too late to think about adding these things to your student’s daily routine (or even yours). Small changes today could bring about major changes in your child’s life.

In this series of blog posts, Small Changes Big Results, we will discuss some small changes you can make that can positively impact your child’s learning and behavior.  We will begin by looking at the importance of healthy fats to your child’s brain.

Feeding Your Brain

Studies have shown that what we eat affects how we feel, how we think, and how much energy we have. Memory, thinking, and attention are strongly influenced by food. Optimal nutrition is the most important factor in keeping your brain healthy.  Because of this fact, small changes to our children’s diet and nutrition is a great place to start making big impacts.

Let’s Look at Healthy Fats First

Healthy Fats positively impact the brain

Believe it or not, the most important nutrient for the brain is fat because the brain is actually made up of fat. Omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA, are essential for brain function. In fact 60 percent of the brain is made up of DHA. DHA is essential for the brain cells’ ability to transmit signals to one another. This is what makes learning and memory possible.

Studies have shown that dopamine activity, which is critical for brain function, is improved with essential fatty acid consumption. A study from UCLA published in the May 15, 2012 edition of the Journal of Physiology showed that fatty acids can counteract the disruption in memory and learning causing by diets high in fructose. Another study published in Plos One in June 2013, showed that lower levels of DHA were linked to poorer reading and working memory performance as well as behavioral problems in healthy school aged children. Research has also shown that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to have low omega-3 fat levels.

In the last 150 years, our fat intake has greatly changed. We need to make sure that we are consuming the best fats for brain health. For instance, if the majority of our fat intake is from trans fats and beef fat, our cell membranes become stiff and hard like lard. This makes it difficult for information to pass from one cell to the next. However, if they are made from omega-3 fats, our cell membranes will become fluid and flexible, allowing easy communication between cells.

Where Do We Get Healthy Fats?

Omega-3 fats come from wild things, which can be hard to find in today’s society. Our bodies can’t produce enough DHA, so we must supplement through diet. The best sources of DHA are cold water fish (salmon, sardines, herring, halibut), walnuts, omega-3 eggs, and flaxseed. Dr. Daniel Amen, author of many books, including Healing ADD Revised Edition: The Breakthrough Program that Allows You to See and Heal the 7 Types of ADD, recommends supplementing dietary intake of omega-3s.

It is important to realize that not all supplements are created equal; it is important to choose quality products. Third-party testing for independent verification of active ingredients and contaminants is crucial. Also, consider from where the products are sourced.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you already take essential fatty acids? Are you considering adding them to your diet?

Fats are just one piece of the “nutrition puzzle.”  For Part II of the Small Changes Big Results series, we will look at the importance of protein to brain health — Protein for Improved Focus and Attention .

 

Other Articles in the Small Changes, Big Results Series:

Share