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.
Some great sources of protein are:
- Greek yogurt (be careful as dairy can often be an allergen)
- Lean meats – chicken, turkey, and other lean meats
- Nuts and nut butters
- 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.
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