TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — In my previous article I discussed the importance of essential fatty acids for healthy brains and overall health. In today’s piece I will cover the importance of protein and complex carbohydrates. These three categories — protein, carbohydrates and fat — are called the macronutrients and are the core of your daily nutrition.
Many children and adults begin their day by eating, essentially, dessert for breakfast. Cereals, pastries, and juice are the norm. They’re quick and easy and kids love them. And, they’re full of sugar — setting your child up for a day of ups and downs with their blood sugar, their energy, their mood and their attention span, as well as suppressing their immune systems.
Recent research shows a phenomenon called an “adrenaline response” occurs in children at a blood sugar level that would not be considered “hypoglycemic” (low blood sugar) but does occur about three to four hours after eating highly processed, high-sugar foods and drinks (this includes 100 percent fruit juices). This “adrenaline response” includes symptoms such as shaking, sweating, increased movement/hyperactivity, loss of concentration, reactive behavior, tantrums and aggressive behavior. In other words — it doesn’t take much for kids to “crash” into craziness after a sugary snack or meal. It isn’t just the sugar that produces these responses, but also the sugar crash/adrenaline response following the sugary meal or snack).
All carbohydrates affect brain function and mood. The rate at which sugar from a particular food enters brain cells, and other cells of the body, is called the “glycemic index” (GI). Foods with a high glycemic index (simple carbohydrates and sugar) stimulate the pancreas to secrete high levels of insulin, which causes sugar to empty quickly from the blood into the cells. Low-glycemic foods deliver a steady supply of sugar, helping control behavior, moods and improve performance. The “standard American diet” breakfast of cereal, pastries and juice is the ultimate high glycemic index breakfast. Switch it out for proteins, whole fruits (not fruit juices), veggies and/or whole grains to stabilize blood sugar and all the positive health that comes with that. Establishing healthy blood sugar levels in your children begins and ends with providing the right balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and oils at each and every meal.
Protein evenly sustains your energy by keeping blood sugar levels more “normal” over the course of the day. Proteins also affect brain performance by providing the amino acids that make neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are biochemical messengers that carry signals from one brain cell to another. Imbalances in neurotransmitters are responsible for many behavioral and emotional issues, so the better you feed these messengers, the more efficiently they deliver the messages, allowing your child to be alert at school (and you to be more on top of things at work).
Begin the day and the blood sugar balance with a healthy, well-balanced breakfast. Start with a protein such as eggs, cheese, meats, or vegetarian options such as beans, or nuts (even nut butters — but watch for added sugars), and combine with a low sugar load (low GI) carbohydrate such as whole fruit, particularly berries, and/or fiber-rich foods such as whole grain cereals (no added sugars!), rolled oat oatmeal, or whole grain toast (such as sprouted grain) for a more stable blood sugar level with significantly smaller sugar crashes and adrenaline responses.
Because the body makes brain-awakening neurotransmitters when you eat protein, starting your day with a breakfast that includes protein starts your child’s day out the right way, setting them up for success in school (and life). Finish off the balance with a healthy fat/oil choice such as a flax oil spread on their whole grain toast or drizzled into their rolled oat cereal. Flax oil has a wonderfully nutty taste and is a source of essential fatty acids as well.
— Dr. Ann Sura is a naturopathic doctor, at NaturaMed Natural Family Medicine in Kings Beach since October 2010, formerly from Arizona where she practiced for 10 years. She welcomes your questions and comments.