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There is no denying the fact that the last two or so months of the year can be highly stressful for both parents and children.

With the end of the school year fast approaching, students are about to be elbow deep in final projects and seemingly endless study sessions.

Over the next two Mondays, AoS will be sharing informative and practical tips on how you can holistically mitigate stress and anxiety over the exam period and set your child up for an academically successful end to the year.

We begin this two-part series with an in-depth conversation about the role and importance of brain food with registered dietitian Dominique Kruger.

Here’s what Kruger had to say about brain care and nutrition…

Q. How and why does nutrition play a vital role in the development of a child’s brain?

Nutrition is especially important during the pregnancy and infancy stages of development. These are crucial periods for the formation of the brain, laying the foundation for the development of cognitive, motor, and socio-emotional skills throughout childhood and adulthood.

When a child is adequately nourished from conception through infancy, the essential energy, protein, fatty acids, and micronutrients necessary for brain development are available during this foundational period, establishing the basis for lifetime brain function.

The first three years of a child’s life are critical for brain development. When there are deficiencies during the times of brain growth there is a high risk of cognitive malformation.

The following nutrients are essential during early development:

• Protein

• Carbohydrates

• Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids

• Choline

• Iron

• Copper

• Zinc

• Vitamin A

• B vitamins

• Vitamin C

• Vitamin D

• Iodine

• Selenium

Q. What are foods that are counterproductive to the development of children’s brains?

A diet that is high in sweets, chocolates, fast food, or other highly processed foods will provide fewer nutrients than what is required for the child’s brain development.

Any diet that is low in variety or excludes fruits and vegetables with whole grain starches and proteins have a high probability of causing a nutritional deficiency.

Nutritional deficiencies (particularly zinc, B vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and protein) early in life can affect the cognitive development of school aged children.

Q. Does nutrition help promote your child’s ability to focus and retain information?

Nutrition most certainly affects a child’s ability to focus and retain information. Proper nutrition improves students’ cognition, concentration, and energy levels.

According to the Society for Neuroscience, recent studies reveal that diets with high levels of saturated fats impair learning and memory. This includes diets high in sugar, trans and saturated fats that can negatively impact learning and memory.

Foods that lead to a diet high in sugar, trans and saturated fats are highly processed foods such as, chips, sweets, instant noodles, microwave popcorn, store-bought sauces, and ready-made meals.

Processed foods negatively impact the brain by reducing the production of a molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

This molecule is found in various parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, and it’s important for long-term memory, learning and the growth of new neurons. Therefore, any reduction can have negative impacts on these functions.

Access to nutrition that incorporates protein, carbohydrates, and healthy sources of glucose has been shown to improve students’ cognition, concentration, and energy levels.

Q. What foods should parents stay away from especially during the exam period?

Foods that are high in added sugars should be avoided, often these foods are also high in salt and fat. This includes mostly processed foods.

Examples of these foods would be:

• Cakes

• Biscuits

• Chocolates

• Sweet

• Crisps/ chips

• Pastries

• Fizzy cooldrinks

Q. What are essential foods to add to your child’s exam time meal plan and why?

It is especially important that children receive a healthy balanced diet focusing on foods from the five main food groups of:

  • Starches
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Protein sources
  • Dairy or dairy alternatives

It’s important to note that potatoes, bread, rice, pasta, pap, and other starchy carbohydrates, are a good source of energy especially for active children.

When offering these foods remember to focus on brown starches such as brown bread or brown maize meal for high fibre.

Wholegrain breakfast cereals and oats are a healthy meal to start the day as they contain a good source of energy, vitamins, minerals, and fibre.

When looking at fruits and vegetables one should encourage your child to eat five portions of fruits and vegetables a day. This can include a variety of fruits and vegetables both fresh and frozen, trying to include vegetables at both lunch and dinner will ensure that you hit the five portions a day.

With regards to protein this can include beans, pulses, fish, eggs, organ meat, beef, chicken and so on. Beans, pulses, and lentils are good alternatives to meat and are low cost, they are low in fat and high in fibre, protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Milk and dairy products or dairy alternatives are very important during childhood as they are a good source of calcium, Vitamin A and D as well as protein. When buying dairy alternatives, such as almond or soya, go for unsweetened, calcium-fortified varieties.

Q. Can you give us five studying snack ideas?

  1. Carrot and cucumber sticks with hummus.
  1. Mashed avocado or peanut butter on rice cakes.
  1. Sandwiches with fillings such as tomato, banana, tuna, lean sliced meat, or egg.
  1. Natural unsweetened yoghurt with cut up pieces of fruit, for example apple, pear, banana, oranges, or berries.
  1. Apple or banana slices with a smear of peanut butter drizzled with nuts, unsweetened coconut, and cocoa nibs.

The brain is a vital and incredibly sophisticated organ with about 100 billion neurons sending impulses at the speed of around 402 km per hour. As with all parts of our human body our brain needs essential nutrients for it to function at maximum capacity.

Needless to say, we must be intentional about feeding our children food that fuels their brain power, particularly during the exam season.

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