Dr Jess: We all want to give our children the best possible start in life and to see them reach their full potential… but did you know that you can increase your child’s intelligence, improve their brain function and help them do better in school with just a few simple changes?
These are our best tips for helping and supporting your children, to help them flourish.
keep the sugar down – especially at breakfast
Several studies show that after having a low glycaemic index (low sugar) breakfast, kids (including teenagers) have better brain function, than after a high sugar breakfast, like cereal or toast. Even better, they report feeling happier and more confident.1,2
This means that if you want your child to learn more and perform better in school, then you should feed them a breakfast that is higher in protein and fat than just cereal, balanced with some healthy complex carbohydrates.
Examples of a healthy breakfast for kids include:
- Peanut butter on wholemeal bread (you could consider 30 days completely gluten-free, if they are struggling with brain function and concentration.
- Scrambled eggs on wholemeal rye toast
- Full fat (unsweetened) yoghurt, berries and nuts
- Cheese and meat, just like the Europeans do!
- Chia seed breakfast pudding
- Porridge – made from real oats, not packet instant oatmeal, which contains high levels of added sugars and chemical ingredients. (Sweeten with berries, flavour with cinnamon or butter and no more than one teaspoon of honey.)
- Home-made low carb granola, berries and milk or yoghurt
- Low carb chocolate banana muffins
Studies for adults consuming a healthy, nutritious breakfast show similar results.3 Eating a sugary breakfast negatively affects your cognitive performance (brain function and concentration). Or you could consider skipping breakfast altogether, as part of an intermittent fasting approach. The idea that breakfast is ‘the most important meal of the day’ is outdated and unproven.
The amount of refined sugar in some popular children’s breakfast cereals is truly shocking. Most children eat at least a small bowl of cereal, which equates to around 40g or more.
Each of the following cereals contains at least three teaspoons of sugar per portion. Some ‘portions’ are classed as just 30g, which is less than most people eat in a sitting, and each portion is made up of more than 80% carbohydrates. The body breaks carbohydrates down into a sugar, which means the entire bowl is almost pure sugar.
- Kellogg’s Coco Pops
- Kellogg’s Frosties
- Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Cornflakes
- Morrisons Choco Pillows
- Nestle Coco Shreddies
Many other breakfast alternatives are no better. Kellogg’s Pop Tarts have a whopping four teaspoons of sugar per tart. While you may think Belvita breakfast biscuits are quite healthy, they actually contain three teaspoons per portion, while GoAhead Goodness raw fruit bar (which you would think is even healthier), has over two teaspoons of sugar.
When you consider that the recommendation is that children consume no more than five teaspoons of sugar per day, you can see why choosing a healthy breakfast that is low in sugar is a really simple, but beneficial choice.
Sugar might also be lurking in any drinks your children have with their breakfast. A small glass of fruit juice can easily add another three teaspoons of sugar. Many cordials and juices are now also loaded with chemical sweeteners, which are bad for us in many ways.
Avoiding sugar in breakfast not only cuts calories and reduces health risks and tooth decay, but it also helps to ensure that your child gets a slow release of energy throughout the day, which can help them to concentrate and perform better.
Find a better alternative and by checking our recipe library for healthy breakfast alternatives.
understand how your kids learn
Improving your child’s IQ is not all about nutrition, although it can make a considerable difference. In an era where many of us find ourselves homeschooling (by choice, or otherwise), it can be an impossible, frustrating and thankless challenge. The trick is to try and make learning fun, with lots of praise for the effort they are making to learn. Show your kids that it’s okay to get things wrong. This all helps them enjoy and therefore engage with learning.
All children have their own way of learning. If, as a parent, you can understand how your child learns best, you can help tailor their learning and homework to help them engage more and get better results.
Is your child a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner? Perhaps they are a mixture of two or three? Find the best way to interact with and teach your kids.
Learn best when their sense of sight is stimulated. They can often love reading, drawing and painting. They can enjoy bright colours and are engaged by pictures. They will use more visual words like; “show me…”, “let me see that…” or “I saw that…”
Learn best when their sense of hearing is stimulated. They often love music and remember the words to songs easily, they can enjoy reading out loud or having stories read to them and remember to do tasks best when you explain them to them (rather than write it down). They may use more auditory words like “tell me…’ or ‘I heard that…’
Learn best when their sense of touch and movement is engaged. They will often be practical and love building things (and taking things apart). They like moving and interactive toys and books. They like to be active and are also often described as ‘cuddly’ when little children, expressing love with hugs and a strong sense of touch. They may use more kinaesthetic words like “I feel…” “let me hold that…” and often use gestures and movements with speech.
While these learning types aren’t fixed and your child may be a mixture of two or three, children who are primarily kinaesthetic can struggle in the confines of a traditional school system, which could lead to them exhibiting behavioural problems out of frustration.
Getting them moving and acting out ideas whilst teaching them and using methods like Montessori teaching (e.g. textured letters and fridge magnets for teaching reading) and blocks and beads to teach maths concepts can really help.
Kinaesthetic children can struggle to sit still for long periods and involvement in sports and practical clubs can help to burn off some of that extra energy they seem to always have. Make sure they are regularly allowed to change position or move.
Visual children (and adults) do brilliantly with mind mapping – a brainstorming technique with lots of colours and pictures, pioneered by Tony Buzan. It is Jess’s own favourite way to learn and write notes. If your child is struggling with revising and learning from books and lines of notes, then try teaching them to mind map.We highly recommend Tony’s Buzan’s book Mind Mapping for Kids to start you off.
Auditory children can do well with making subjects into songs and stories and reading things out loud. Later, they can benefit from recording themselves speaking information and listening back to it to learn.
Although education has come a long way and tries to engage all three styles of learning, auditory and visual learners often do better in a school environment. But, by helping your child engage with learning in a way that makes sense to them, you can help them to figure out learning techniques that can help them throughout their education (and into adulthood too)!
Dr Jess says: I was 90% deaf (from multiple severe ear infections and antibiotics) until I was six years old, when I had an operation to restore my hearing. This may be why I developed such a strong visual imagination and way of seeing the world. Even today, I often remember expressions on people’s faces, more than the words they have said!
I still struggle with auditory learning and have found it much easier to learn using mind maps, which revolutionised my ability to remember information. The encouragement I was given to learn new memory techniques like this when I was younger really helped me later, when taking tough exams and showed me how important it is to find the right learning technique.
boost their omega 3 oil and vitamin D
Unless your child’s diet is high in fish (preferably wild or organic salmon, or fish that is naturally low in mercury), parents should consider giving their children a high-quality omega 3 supplement. Jess gives her children an environmentally responsible krill supplement (Clean Marine Krill Oil for kids), as krill has the added benefit of astaxanthin (a powerful protective natural pigment). For smaller children, we really like Nordic Naturals Omega 3 Fishies (300mg). Otherwise, any good quality fish-based omega 3 (high in DHA) can be beneficial.
Vitamin D deficiency is a big problem in the UK, as our low light levels mean that for six months of the year there is not enough sunlight to activate our own vitamin D production. Supplementing vitamin D, especially during winter, is a good idea for everyone. Not only has it been shown to help brain function, but it has also been demonstrated to help protect against the most serious consequences of coronavirus.
the benefits of omega 3 and vitamin D for children include:
- Omega 3 supplements and vitamin D supplements are important nutrients for brain health and function
- A study showed that fortifying 8-14-year-olds’ children’s milk with omega 3 and vitamin D for five months improved their working memory and made their brain processing speed faster on tests4
- Omega 3 also helps visual development.5 Omega 3 supplements have been found to reduce the severity of ADHD and autism symptoms6,7 in children, and may reduce aggressive behaviour8
- Omega 3 during pregnancy has been shown to reduce the risk of postnatal depression,9 preterm labour and lung problems
- All pregnant women can benefit from taking an omega 3 supplement after the first trimester (13+weeks) of pregnancy, as this is the best time to help support the developing brain of your baby with important nutrients (folic acid in the form of methylfolate should also be taken as recommended, to support your baby’s nervous system)
- Vitamin D supplementation can improve cognitive function (memory, learning and attention) in children with ADHD10 and mental health, decision-making and reasoning in teenagers11
avoid brain-damaging toxins
Whilst certain nutrients are important for brain health, we know of many chemicals that can damage nerves and affect brain development. These include:
Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal pollutant that is much higher in non-organic fruit and vegetables than it is in organic varieties12 – yet another reason to eat organic! Cadmium is also found at high levels in cigarette smoke, which is another reason to never smoke around children.
More worryingly, cadmium can stay in the body for up to 40 years and damages our liver, kidneys and brain. In children, verbal intelligence and the performance of 5-year olds were damaged by higher cadmium levels.13 Avoiding cadmium may be especially important in pregnancy.13 Turmeric and magnesium may help to protect us against cadmium toxicity.14
insecticides and pesticides
This group of chemicals is used in non-organic farming and food. It is also in head lice shampoo, flea treatments, household insect treatments and mosquito products.
Exposure to these chemicals is common and it has been shown that cognitive performance (memory, learning and development) decreased in 6-year old children who had been exposed to higher levels of insecticides.15 Baby reflexes and development can also be decreased with higher levels of pesticides.16
Organic food is four times lower in these chemicals.12 Natural head lice treatments can help you to avoid using pesticides on your children’s hair.
Click here for our natural insect repellent recipe. Diatomaceous earth and essential oils can also be excellent natural insect eliminators.
Exposure to mercury in pregnancy and early childhood can cause problems with memory, language, attention and fine motor skills.17 The main exposure of humans to mercury is from eating fish and seafood, and levels can be significantly increased by eating these daily. So, while we definitely encourage eating fish for its omega oil and other health benefits, care should be taken as to how much and what type of fish you and your child consume.
It is also worth noting that mercury levels in people with amalgam (mercury fillings) can be double that of those without.18 The fish highest in mercury are swordfish, bluefin tuna and Spanish mackerel. Atlantic mackerel, salmon and sardines are some of the best fish to eat regularly, as they are high in omega 3 and low in mercury.
A wide range of products contain phthalates, which are in many plastics, including PVC, children toys like loom bands, modelling clay, erasers, paint, waxes, vinyl, glues, medical devices, detergents, building materials, coatings of medications, food products, eyeshadows, perfumes and printing inks, to name just a few.
We are only just beginning to understand how dangerous this group of chemicals is. Phthalates are known to disrupt our hormones, may affect sexual development and cause thyroid problems.19 The amount of exposure during childhood is also shown to negatively affect our brain development and IQ.20
Whilst we can’t avoid all phthalates, we can keep our levels as low as possible by using glass and ceramic containers, buying eco cleaning products, detergents and make-up that is phthalate-free. When thinking about household exposure remember that infants spend a lot of time in contact with the floor. Urinary concentrations of phthalates in children have been shown to be 15 times higher in homes with vinyl flooring20 – if you want the convenience of vinyl flooring, choose low-toxicity vinyl like Tarkett .
Try to look for household products and personal care items that are phthalate-free and minimise the amount of plastic used in your home. You may also wish to consider giving your child a supplement of liposomal glutathione, which may help rid the body of toxins.
stop sitting and move!
One of the issues that children experience when learning in a classroom environment is our educational format – we work our children’s brains by sitting all day, teaching them new things, but as a nation, we are getting much worse at providing enough physical exercise. Despite break times, school is often pretty sedentary, with the average primary school offering less than an hour a week of PE.
With rising levels of obesity in children, coupled with the decrease in our general physical activity, it is important to make sure your child stays as active as possible. Exercise improves mood, helps the development of their bones and muscles, maintains weight and helps brain function.
Studies show that increasing exercise boosts the learning ability of school-age children and improves their academic performance (grades) in school.21 Immediately after exercise, children are better able to remember word lists and form long term memories.22
Kids are advised to have at least 60 minutes of aerobic exercise (intensive exercise that raises their heart rate) at least three times per week. Some of the best activities are:
- Team sports, to develop social skills and general fitness
- Ball games, to help develop movement co-ordination
- Martial arts, gymnastics and dancing are excellent for strength, flexibility, core strength and focus
- Riding a bike is great for balance and hand/eye coordination
Any sport that your child enjoys should be encouraged! In a sedentary world, encouraging an early passion for sport and physical activity will give your children lifelong better health, as well as helping to make them smarter!
Is it safe to feed my children a low-carb, low sugar diet?
Yes! We have been eating a low-carb, low sugar diet for thousands of years. It is only the recent explosion of processed foods that have changed this. Whilst I don’t encourage a ketogenic diet for most children (with the exception of supporting epilepsy or cancer treatment), as it can be very difficult to maintain, I do encourage nearly all children to cut down the sugar and processed carbohydrates in their diet. An easy way to do this is to make food from scratch. I also often suggest a three-month gluten-free diet in children struggling with cognition (brain function), digestive, skin, mood or other inflammatory conditions, especially if they have signs of a leaky gut.
Is it worth discussing with the school, if I think my child has a different learning style?
It is always important to engage with your children’s teachers and support staff in school, whilst resources can be scarce if you are positive and discuss your concerns you will usually find a positive response. Montessori teaching methods encourage the engagement of multiple learning styles and sensory-based learning, as do Steiner schools, with a focus on creativity and movement. Parents may find these styles helpful to learn about and discuss.
Jess has found that simply discussing mind mapping with school and sending children in with plain paper and coloured pens have helped many of her patients. Tony Buzan has an excellent Mind Mapping for Kids book that can be a good introduction to improve engagement.
- Micha R, Rogers PJ, Nelson M. Glycaemic index and glycaemic load of breakfast predict cognitive function and mood in school children: a randomised controlled trial Br J Nutr. 2011 Nov;106(10):1552-61. doi: 10.1017/S0007114511002303. Epub 2011 Jun 8. PMID: 21736777.
- Cooper SB, Bandelow S, Nute ML, Morris JG, Nevill ME. Breakfast glycaemic index and cognitive function in adolescent school children Br J Nutr. 2012 Jun;107(12):1823-32. doi: 10.1017/S0007114511005022. Epub 2011 Sep 29. PMID: 22017815.
- Sanchez-Aguadero N, Garcia-Ortiz L, Patino-Alonso MC, Mora-Simon S, Gomez-Marcos MA, Alonso-Dominguez R, Sanchez-Salgado B, Recio-Rodriguez JI. Postprandial effect of breakfast glycaemic index on vascular function, glycaemic control and cognitive performance (BGI study): study protocol for a randomised crossover trial Trials. 2016 Oct 24;17(1):516. doi: 10.1186/s13063-016-1649-x. PMID: 27776536; PMCID: PMC5078881.
- Petrova D, Bernabeu Litrán MA, García-Mármol E, Rodríguez-Rodríguez M, Cueto-Martín B, López-Huertas E, Catena A, Fonollá J. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/29881917/?i=10&from=omega%203%20children Eur J Nutr. 2019 Aug;58(5):1863-1872. doi: 10.1007/s00394-018-1734-x. Epub 2018 Jun 7. PMID: 29881917.
- Shulkin M, Pimpin L, Bellinger D, Kranz S, Fawzi W, Duggan C, Mozaffarian D. n-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation in Mothers, Preterm Infants, and Term Infants and Childhood Psychomotor and Visual Development: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Nutr. 2018 Mar 1;148(3):409-418. doi: 10.1093/jn/nxx031. PMID: 29546296; PMCID: PMC6251555.
- Bloch MH, Qawasmi A. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for the treatment of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptomatology: systematic review and meta-analysis. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2011 Oct;50(10):991-1000. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2011.06.008. Epub 2011 Aug 12. PMID: 21961774; PMCID: PMC3625948.h
- Keim SA, Gracious B, Boone KM, Klebanoff MA, Rogers LK, Rausch J, Coury DL, Sheppard KW, Husk J, Rhoda DA. ω-3 and ω-6 Fatty Acid Supplementation May Reduce Autism Symptoms Based on Parent Report in Preterm Toddlers. J Nutr. 2018 Feb 1;148(2):227-235. doi: 10.1093/jn/nxx047. PMID: 29490101; PMCID: PMC6251698.
- Raine A, Ang RP, Choy O, Hibbeln JR, Ho RM, Lim CG, Lim-Ashworth NSJ, Ling S, Liu JCJ, Ooi YP, Tan YR, Fung DSS. Omega-3 (ω-3) and social skills interventions for reactive aggression and childhood externalizing behavior problems: a randomized, stratified, double-blind, placebo-controlled, factorial trial. Psychol Med. 2019 Jan;49(2):335-344. doi: 10.1017/S0033291718000983. Epub 2018 May 10. PMID: 29743128.
- Hsu MC, Tung CY, Chen HE. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in prevention and treatment of maternal depression: Putative mechanism and recommendation. J Affect Disord. 2018 Oct 1;238:47-61. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2018.05.018. Epub 2018 May 16. PMID: 29860183.
- Elshorbagy HH, Barseem NF, Abdelghani WE, Suliman HAI, Al-Shokary AH, Abdulsamea SE, Elsadek AE, Abdel Maksoud YH, Nour El Din DMAE. Impact of Vitamin D Supplementation on Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children Ann Pharmacother. 2018 Jul;52(7):623-631. doi: 10.1177/1060028018759471. Epub 2018 Feb 18. PMID: 29457493.
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- Organic vs non-organic food – Press Office
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