Childhood and Adolescent Brain Health: The Impact of Obesity and Diet

Stacey Trogdon, RD, CDE CHER Diabetes Educator

Stacey Trogdon, RD, CDE CHER Diabetes Educator

The long days of summer are behind us and the back to school season has begun in earnest. As parents, we have launched full swing into balancing school schedules and other associated parental responsibilities and it seems appropriate to think about boosting our children’s brain power.

The brain is a highly active organ requiring a lot of blood, oxygen and nutrients for peak performance. So what specifically can be done to boost these important ingredients of optimal brain health? Obesity prevention and eating a healthful diet are two factors that can help.

Achieving or maintaining a healthy weight is important as research indicates being obese can harm the brain in many different ways. Obesity increases the risk of sleep apnea and can lead to reduced blood flow. Both of these conditions reduce oxygen being carried to the brain.

A recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health revealed that obesity is linked to impaired brain function in adolescents. The findings indicated that kids with metabolic syndrome, a condition of obesity, did not perform well on things that were very relevant to school performance.

For diet, research suggests that the Mediterranean-style diet provides plenty of the necessary nutrients to keep the mind sharp immediately and long term. Experts agree that omega 3 fatty acids are the most promising components of the Mediterranean diet.

Food sources highest in omega 3 fatty acids include cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, halibut and herring. Many nuts, beans and seeds are good sources with the two highest being flaxseed and walnuts. Supplements are another option, but food sources are preferred.

Foods rich in antioxidants keep oxygen flowing to the brain and are another important component to a healthy diet. Rich sources include berries such as blueberries and cherries, grapes, pomegranates, kiwis, pineapples, lemons, oranges, grapefruit and plums. Vegetable sources include parsley, artichokes, red cabbage, chili peppers, kale, spinach and red beets. Other sources include beans such as pinto and soybeans. Also spices such as cinnamon, oregano and cloves can help improve the functioning of the brain.

B vitamins, in particular B6, B12 and folic acid are important to brain functioning. Good sources include asparagus, broccoli, black beans, citrus fruits, soybeans, melons, strawberries and dark, leafy greens such as spinach.

The brain needs a constant supply of glucose or sugar and is the only fuel it uses. However, eating the wrong kind of sugar is the wrong approach. The right approach is to eat complex carbohydrates such as whole grains including oatmeal preferably non-instant, brown rice and bread made with whole wheat flour in the first ingredient. Another option is quinoa an alternative to rice that is easy to prepare and versatile. Fruits and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, corn and winter squashes are also sources of healthy forms of complex carbohydrates.

As a dietitian, I am well aware that advance meal planning is a very important tool to providing our families with the healthy food they need to boost their brain power and performance. Enlist other family members in helping to create a meal plan for the week and then shop accordingly. Advance meal planning will make the week much easier for the cook in the family.

For managing weight, make physical activity a family event or support your child’s interest in participating in an organized sport. Remember that being a good role model is one of the best ways to influence your family’s physical activity and health habits.

Stacey Trogdon, RD, CDE, received her degree in dietetics from Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA and completed her dietetic internship at the University of Washington in Seattle. Stacey has been practicing in the dietetics field for over 20 years with a diverse portfolio of experience including clinical dietetics, private practice, diabetes education and corporate wellness. Her private practice experience included freelance writing, corporate wellness and sports nutrition. Stacey is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Association of Diabetes Educators and the Greater Spokane Dietetic Association where she currently serves as President-Elect.

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