So what nutrients do you need to include in your kid’s lunchbox this school year? Here, experts dig into five of the most important nutrients for childhood cognitive health and performance – as well as the best ways to get your kids to actually eat (and even like ) the foods that pack them.
1. Lutein and Zeaxanthin
Technically two different nutrients, both lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids (plant pigments with strong antioxidant properties) that have been found to support memory, improve processing speed and efficiency and perhaps even impact academic performance – especially when consumed together, Kuchan says. For example, one study from the Center for Nutrition Learning and Memory found that increasing intake of lutein and zeaxanthin significantly improves young adults’ visual processing speeds.
The best sources for kids: While dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale are great sources of lutein, they aren’t always the most palatable to children. Try integrating them into fan favorites like baked spaghetti. Fortunately, tomatoes are rich in lutein, too. Meanwhile, eggs, corn, kiwi, grapes, oranges and zucchini pack plenty of both lutein and zeaxanthin. Make produce fun with zucchini noodles called zoodles, frozen grapes and chocolate-covered orange slices.
2. Unsaturated Fats
Fun fact: The human brain is 60 percent fat, which explains why healthy intakes of fat, especially unsaturated or “good” fat, is beneficial for cognitive development and performance during all phases of life, childhood included, says District of Columbia-based dietitian Elana Natker. For example, in one 2016 study out of Sweden, taking supplements with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids significantly improved children’s reading skills, with the greatest results in those with attention difficulties. So powerful are these polyunsaturated fatty acids at increasing focus that some experts recommend them as a drug-free alternative for children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The best sources for kids: Nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil are all great sources of unsaturated fat. But, unfortunately, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which is a main structural component in the human brain, is also one of the hardest to come by, Natker says. Traditionally, DHA-rich food options have started and ended with fatty fish such as salmon and tuna (introduce it early and often to help your child develop a taste for it). However, many food manufacturers are now fortifying eggs, milk and dairy products with the important nutrient, she says. Look for “DHA-fortified” on the label.
“Emerging research suggests that certain polyphenols, such as anthocyanins, the nutrient behind the purple and blue pigment in fruits and vegetables, may support brain health,” Natker says. For instance, a 2017 study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that healthy college-aged males who drank 100 percent grape juice prior to undergoing attention-based cognitive tests performed better compared to those who drank a placebo with the same amount of sugar, but without all of the anthocyanins. The verdict is still out on how much this is due to anthocyanins’ antioxidant properties and how much comes down to their ability to promote blood flow, including to the brain, Natker says.
The best sources for kids: Grapes and blueberries are two great bite-sized brain foods for kids. While fruit juice – especially 100 percent fruit juice – can help deliver vitamins and minerals, it’s important to remember that one glass contains all of the sugar of handfuls and handfuls of fruit, but without all of the blood sugar-stabilizing fiber of that fruit. To prevent sugar crashes (and the brain fog that goes with it), be sure to pair fruit juice with a solid source of protein and fat.
A precursor to several neurotransmitters that allow for peak cognitive processing, choline is vital to cognitive development and memory function, explains Natker, noting that cholinewill soon be included on the nutrition facts panel. Research has long showed that women’s choline levels during pregnancy significantly affect their children’s future cognitive health, but research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that, in children as old as age 5, choline supplementation may still improve cognitive function. More studies are currently underway.
The best sources for kids: While both beans and organ meats are good sources, eggs contain even more of the nutrient and are more kid-friendly. Serve them for breakfast in place of sugary cereals. Bonus: They’ll keep your kids’ bellies full and energy levels up clear until lunchtime, Natker says.
5. Vitamin E
“Vitamin E is found in parts of the brain that are linked to memory, vision, hearing, language development and even complex learning,” Kuchan says. “It is one of the most powerful antioxidant nutrients, and it has been shown to work as a complement to lutein in protecting DHA, which is an omega-3 fatty acid vital for cognitive function.”
The best sources for kids: Eggs, sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts and broccoli are all great sources of vitamin E, Kuchan says. If you’re into reading food labels, look for “d-alpha-tocopherol” or “rrr-a-tocopherol.” Both are code words for natural vitamin E, which the brain prefers over synthetic vitamin E, he says.