Health and Wellness, Nutritionally Speaking

Protein and Omega-3 Fats for Improved Cognitive Function

Concerned parents often ask for tips and alternatives to medications for those students that struggle to pay attention in the classroom. Many bright students struggle with concentrating on their schoolwork, and may be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I remember that my report cards often included the dreaded, “Student not working to best of their ability.”
Studies show that children diagnosed with ADHD often have diets high in sugar (mine was), low in protein, and also are deficient in EFAs (essential fatty acids), particularly Omega 3 as found in flax seed, chia, hemp seed or cold-water fish oils (from salmon/sardines), pasture-raised chicken eggs and meat. While the typical American diet is high in Omega 6 fats as found in corn, canola, margarine and other vegetable oils, most people are missing the Omega 3 oils which play an important role in brain and nerve tissue development and maintenance. In Paleolithic/hunter gatherer times we had a 1:1 ratio of Omega 6 fats to Omega 3 fats, but these days it is common to have a 40:1 ratio, which is way out of balance.
These omega fats are described as “essential” since we cannot make them in our bodies and they must be part of our diet. One healthy source of Omega 3 is flax seeds or oil, available at stores that carry nutritional supplements. Flax seeds can be ground and added to smoothies or salads and whole chia seeds can be added to smoothies and other beverages. Hemp seeds are another healthy option, with each seed packed with healthy oils, fiber and protein to boot. The Omega 3 fats support healthy levels of inflammation, and conversely the Omega 6 fats and sugar that are plentiful in imbalanced diets contribute to inflammation which impacts cognitive function. The Omega 3 fats in cold water are different structurally than the seed sources. Fish oil contains EPA and DHA that are critically important for healthy function of our cell membranes, required for all of each cell in our bodies performing their cellular tasks. There are now EPA and DHA supplements available from algae sources for folks following a plant based diet.
Protein is also a critical ingredient as the amino acids that are the building blocks of protein are important for brain function and the production and regulation of the brain’s chemicals. According to a George Washington University School of Medicine study: Hyperactive children who had a high-protein meal performed as well or better than non-hyperactive children. At Oxford University in England a study evaluated the effects of essential fatty acid supplementation (EFA) with children diagnosed with ADHD. The children taking the EFA (Omega-3) supplements showed significant improvement as compared to the control group receiving a placebo.
ADHD is the most common behavioral disorder in children, often treated with stimulant drugs such as Ritalin. Studies show that children with ADHD that are treated with Ritalin, and without any dietary changes, such as limiting sugar intake, and increasing protein and EFA intake are still at high risk for problem behaviors.
Many children start their days with a sugary, high-carbohydrate bowl of cereal, and would probably perform better in school if their days started out with some healthy proteins and fats. Studies show that once the sweet tooth is “switched” on with that first bowl of sweet cereal, the tone is set for the day. Some better choices for breakfast are scrambled eggs, or whole grain bread with peanut butter. Another option is a yogurt and fruit smoothie with whey protein powder and flax oil, flax seeds, chia and/or hemp seeds added.
Studies show that it may take 10 to 12 weeks of improved nutrition including healthy proteins and fats to see improvement of ADHD symptoms. I have found that with reduced sugar in the diet, the cravings diminish, especially when the day is not started with sugary cereals, pancakes or doughnuts. We are what we eat. Salud!

You can reach Yaakov at [email protected]