The best pre-exam diet for kids

OUR EXPERTS: Susie Rucker, nutritional therapist from Body With Soul Adam Friedman, naturopathic physician from the Integrated Medicine Institute in Hong Kong

It's a stressful time for your kids - studying for the end-of-year exams means they're likely to be burning the midnight oil and doing whatever they can to memorise complicated formulas and facts.

But for helping them to stay focused and remember what they've learnt, stimulating "energy" drinks and calorie-laden snacks just won't cut it. Instead of giving them lasting energy, what these sugary foods really do is steal your kids' brainpower.

"Sugar kills the dendrites in the brain, so it's little wonder that it is a major culprit in Alzheimer's disease," says Susie Rucker, a nutritional therapist from Body With Soul.

"Think of dendrites (nerve cell connectors) as mini-computers in the brain. They transmit signals as well as help process information, therefore they have to be protected."

But before you adjust your kids' meals, it's important to know how the brain retains information. According to Adam Friedman, a naturopathic physician from the Integrated Medicine Institute in Hong Kong, there are two types of memory: short-term and long-term.

"Creating a memory requires an electrochemical process in our neurons or brain cells that is aided by repetition, adequate nutrition and appropriate sleep," he explains.

"Assuming your kids have taken the time to create the short-term memory through repetition, the conversion of short- to long-term memory takes place during both REM and non-REM sleep cycles. This is when memories are consolidated and stored in the part of the brain known as the hippocampus."

So what your kids really need are foods that improve brain function by providing necessary building blocks as well as those that help them complete a proper sleep cycle.

Adam warns against giving kids stimulants like coffee and tea, as these may prevent them from winding down at the end of the day and getting restful sleep.

Snacking before bedtime should also be kept to a minimum, as this can cause tummy discomfort during the night, interrupting their deep slumber.

Lastly, remind them to stay hydrated throughout the day, as dehydration negatively affects cognitive function and decreases circulation to the brain.

Make sure your kids' meals contain:

1) Eggs

These are excellent sources of choline, a compound that helps the brain build neurotransmitters, says Susie.

The best part is that eggs are versatile and can be eaten any time of the day.

Serve them chopped in a salad, poached, scrambled or boiled, as a hearty omelette, or added to rice and noodle dishes.

2) Dark-green leafy vegetables

Vegetables like spinach, bak choy, kale, kai lan, chye sim and kang kong are full of the vitamins and minerals that aid the various biochemical processes going on in the body, says Adam.

Without these important processes, none of the necessary steps for memory production can occur. Serve these veggies lightly steamed or stir-fried.

They should be prepared as simply as possible to preserve their nutritional profile. You can make them more palatable by topping them with fried garlic and shallots, and drizzled with a bit of chilli oil.

They also give stir-fried rice and noodle dishes a nutritional boost.

3) Cacao

Susie recommends substituting store-bought chocolate milk drinks with nut milk to which cacao powder has been added.

And instead of regular milk-based chocolate bars, most of which contain too much refined sugar, let your kids snack on organic cacao products that have been naturally sweetened.

Cacao is rich in antioxidant compounds called flavanols, which are believed to boost cognition and increase blood flow to the brain.

4) Healthy fats

The brain is largely made of fatty tissue, and thus requires fats to function properly, says Adam. The best and healthiest sources are wild salmon, sardines, mackerel, coconut oil, olive oil, meat, nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds, bone broths, and fatty fruit like avocados and olives.

Some easy ways to enjoy these foods: breakfast smoothies made from almond milk, nuts and fresh fruit; soups made from bone broth and bulked up with vegetables and wholemeal noodles; grilled salmon drizzled with cold-pressed, unrefined coconut oil or olive oil; and avocados mashed with lemon juice as a dip for crackers or vegetables.

5) Wholegrains

Foods like oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice, bran and spelt pasta are packed with B vitamins that help the body produce and release energy, says Susie.

They're also rich in magnesium, which helps kids sleep soundly. Substitute refined white bread, cereals and pasta with these wholegrain alternatives.

Bonus: Your kids will be getting extra fibre with these foods.

6) Berries

Berries, especially blueberries, are loaded with antioxidants that can help protect the brain from oxidative stress, thereby maintaining its health and function, says Adam.

Your kids can enjoy berries alone as a snack or dessert, as a cereal or yogurt topping, or baked into muffins.

 

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