The Hong Kong school market is incredibly competitive and, as if things were not stressful enough for the young generation, children and teens are constantly bombarded with information regarding what to eat and what not to eat. So, we ask: Is it true? Can food influence a child’s behaviour and performance at school? The answer is simple: YES – yes, it has a great impact. Does that mean our kids should be fed salad and will hate healthy foods they consider boring? No – that’s not how it has to be.
A Quick Summary
If we eat good food, we feel good and our system runs at 100% capacity. If we don’t eat well, we will still get by (as we are built to survive much more than a few bad food days), but we will be compromised in many ways, such as having lower cognitive abilities or less strength. Giving our children proper nutrition will ensure they can achieve their best performance naturally, without forcing themselves too much.
So, without further ado, here’s a simple list of good and bad foods to keep in mind the next time you’re packing your kid’s lunchbox!
The “no-no” foods:
- Processed foods: Anything that is manufactured by machines or something that “doesn’t grow on trees” is toxic and can influence a child’s focus, aggression and attention level, not to mention worsen any type of ADHD symptoms. Our bodies are not used to this “machine” food and have a hard time digesting fast food, sugary treats or anything with lots of “E-number-ingredients.” The gut works overtime, the brain slows down – you can imagine what happens to focus and the willingness to sit still and learn…
- Food high in simple “white” carbohydrates: Whereas children need carbohydrates, they should not rely on simple carbohydrates (like white breads, white rice or anything sugary) as their main energy provider. Like adults, they need a balanced diet full of vegetables and fruits. Simple white carbs can have a very short-term energy effect and a child’s focus will simply go up and down. For children to gain maximum focus, it’s advisable to consume 2 cups of fruit and 2-3 cups of vegetables a day, as well as some darker carbohydrates.
- Fizzy drinks are the number one attention-killer. They are full of unnatural gas, which imbalances a child’s digestive system, plus they contain a great deal of sugar. Children who drink fizzy, sugary drinks will be very hyper for 5-10 minutes then just crash. Have you ever seen a kid falling asleep in class after drinking a sugary drink (or eating sugar)? Now you know why!
The YES foods:
Any “whole food” that is natural and not processed may be good for children (if eaten in balance). This includes fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. Let’s take a closer look at the “brain booster school snacks” among the natural food groups:
- Dark/complex carbohydrates: Very dark bread or brown rice are great for giving children ongoing energy and the ability to stay focused without getting hungry, agitated or tired.
- Natural yogurt (can be sweetened naturally by freshly cut fruit): This is a great snack for your children at school. Yogurt supports the gut function and keeps everything “sorted” so that the rest of the body, including the brain, can literally relax and focus on something else.
- Freshly cut vegetable sticks (i.e. carrots): The vitamins in carrots are not only antioxidants but also support concentration and focus. A hummus dip is healthy and yummy and will make it more interesting than just nibbling on carrots or even celery sticks, alone.
- Walnuts: Full of omega 3, this wonder food is a great snack (about 1 handful per day) and is literally “brain food.” Walnuts give immediate energy and focus that lasts.
- Blueberries: Does the newest US research really suggest that blueberries can repair short-term memory loss? Well, any way you look at them, they are fresh and healthy – great snacks!
- Bananas are really good for the nerves and the B vitamins they contain have the ability to make one a bit more “happy.” What’s good for the nerves can only be good for a child’s focus and ability to handle school stress.
- Green vegetables like broccoli, kale or anything “leafy”: These contain a high level of Vitamin K, which is great brain food. As green vegetables tend to be more boring, sneak them into your child’s lunch by adding them to sauces or mix them with other foods. Expert tip: Blend them to fine pieces and mix them in a couscous salad – children won’t even notice!
- Water: Children NEED water! Water is a super food and should not be underestimated. Drinking sufficient water will make every child more attentive and focused – not to mention it will lower sugar cravings.
The most important thing to note is that all of the above recommendations are based on a balanced diet. Don’t fall into extremes! If you can provide a healthy, balanced diet for your kid with a focus on whole foods, you’ll be surprised at the improvements you see in their performance and behaviour. Above all, have fun with it – try out new kid-friendly recipes and incorporate the not-so-yummy foods into a playful dish that gets kids excited about what’s on their plate!
For further questions about family nutrition plans, please visit the Nutrition Nation HK website for a full consultation.