If you have a tween or teen who struggles to focus on learning or those crucial tasks you need them to do around the house then making a few dietary changes might help. Here are my top 5 tips to use food for focus.
Help them stay hydrated
Ok so it’s not strictly food but water is essential for all sorts of things that go on in our bodies including digesting food, removing waste products, building new tissue, avoiding overheating and sending the electrical messages between cells that drive all our body functions like moving, seeing and thinking. Studies have reported that people who do not drink enough can struggle to focus and suffer more headaches and tiredness. Equally important is that research tells us that people often mistake thirst for hunger and reach for fatty/sugary snacks rather than a glass of water. Helping your teen to stay well hydrated might help them fight off the munchies and so eat better at meal times. Eating a balanced diet will help ensure that they get all the other nutrients they need to focus.
If your tween/teen hates water then try making fruit infused waters and get them involved in coming up with some recipes. Just fill a pitcher with ice-cold water and add slices of fruit and flavourings. Top up with some extra ice and leave it in the fridge to infuse. Try orange with a cinnamon stick or apple and cloves or lime and mint as a few ideas for starters.
Be sugar smart
It is a myth that sugar causes hyperactivity. Research actually shows that parents who were told their child had been given sugar believed that they saw more behavioural problems whether or not their child had actually been given sugar. This indicates that it might be such an accepted myth that we actually see things that are not really there.
However we know that sugary foods can cause unhelpful blood sugar swings. If your child eats a bag of sweets or has an energy drink their body will produce insulin, which takes the sugar into the cells. Sometimes insulin continues to be produced even when blood sugars have returned to normal and blood sugars drop too low. When this happens your child will think they are hungry again and will want yet another snack. This could just perpetuate the cycle and stop them eating the balanced meals that are more likely to give them what they need to focus well.
To help them try to think about the glycaemic effect of the foods and meals that they eat. Glycaemic effect takes account of both the rate at which a food or meal releases sugars into the blood and the amount of carbohydrate present in the food or meal. Your tween/teen needs carbohydrate foods to get enough energy for growth and activity. However you should make sure the portion size is right for their needs and you should help them choose meals that contain fibre and protein as well as carbs. Fibre and protein both help slow down the release of sugar into the blood. A good steady flow of glucose into the bloodstream is what is needed to fuel the brain and support optimal focus. To help your tween/teen understand portion sizes take a look at this useful resource from the Caroline Walker Trust.
Encourage a healthy relationship with food
Tweens and teens can start to experiment with fad diets as they become more body conscious and begin to experience pressure from images on social media. Fad diets tend to be very low in energy and lack key nutrients. Be mindful of the messages you are giving your child through your behaviour and the way you talk about your body. It’s great to want to eat well, exercise, be healthy and look great but if we are constantly obsessing about our bodies whether it be belly fat, lack of muscles or chunky thighs we are not helping our children. Make sure your child sees you eating regular balanced meals and enjoying food. If you find this hard you can get some help from a Dietitian.
Think vitamins and minerals
The B group vitamins are crucial for enabling our bodies to use the energy in our food as fuel. Without enough B vitamins your tween/teen will soon start to feel lethargic and lack focus. B vitamins are found in a wide range of foods so there should be no need for supplements. Wholegrain cereals, beans and peas and meat, fish, eggs and dairy foods are all good sources.
If your child does not eat enough iron they will struggle to make enough haemoglobin. This will impact their focus because haemoglobin carries oxygen around the body to be used for energy. There are two types of iron, haem and non-haem. Haem iron is found in meat, offal (liver and kidneys etc.) poultry and fish. Vegetarian food contains non-heam iron, which is much harder for our bodies to use. Furthermore vegetarian foods contain a lot less iron than meat, poultry and offal or even fish. However it’s a myth that you can only get enough iron if you eat red meat or offal. If your child is vegetarian or if they eat very little meat, offal, poultry or fish you will need to show them which vegetarian foods pack the best punch when it comes to iron and make sure they know what to do to make sure they absorb as much of it as possible.
There are lots of useful vegetarian source of iron. The list below shows some good options.
Unsweetened breakfast cereals fortified with iron e.g. Weetabix, Bran Flakes, Cornflakes
Pulses such as black-eyed beans, aduki beans, kidney beans, borlotti beans, peas, chick peas, lentils and baked beans
Dried apricots or prunes
Curly kale, swiss chard, spinach
Wholemeal bread with iron added
Wheatgerm sprinkled on salads, and cereals
Phytic acid (found in wholegrains and legumes) and tannins (found in tea and coffee), reduce iron absorption. For this reason people who eat little or no animal foods should avoid consuming tea and coffee with meals. Wholegrains and legumes should not be excluded though, as these are needed for other vital nutrients. Foods containing vitamin C promote iron absorption. Citrus fruits and juices, strawberries, kiwi fruit, pawpaw and melons, as well as green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, broccoli, and peppers are good choices.
Act on Additives
Some artificial food colourings such as tartrazine (E102) and preservatives such as sodium benzoate have been linked with hyperactivity. If your child is hyperactive they will be easily distracted and find focusing on a task hard. If you think your child does react start to keep a food diary and check food labels to see if you can make any links. There are several additives that can cause problems so if you think this might be an issue for your child, consult your Dietitian.
If your child’s issues with focus are significant you should consider consulting your GP as it be be helpful for them to have an assessment to see if they have ADHD. This can be effectively treated with executive functioning coaching and/or medication, so it’s worth getting it checked out.
If you would like advice and support for yourself or your child please do get in touch at the link below.