This week I spoke to our community’s elementary school to help give parents the tools they need to grow our children’s brains and set them up for optimal health in the long-term.
It brought me back to my first job as a holistic RD. Back in 1998 I had just left my job as a hospital dietitian and had started working with a nutritionally-oriented MD. Due to some cutting-edge treatments, the practice drew a great deal of children who had autism and ADD. I wasn’t sure what kind of results to expect with these precious children and was nothing short of blown away to see every single one of them improve with dietary changes — especially when it came to clearing out gluten and dairy. It took tenacity and true grit for some of these families to make such broad, sweeping changes in the lives of their families, but the payoff was BIG and I was grateful to witness all of it.
You don’t have to have a child with ADD or autism — or even have children, for that matter — to know that every single change you make in your eating will make a huge impact on your health and your mental focus.
Is gluten really that big of a deal?
In a nutshell, yes. We now have enough scientific evidence to support gluten’s effect on thinning out the intestinal walls and leading to intestinal permeability. This in turn enables undigested food particles to cross the blood-brain barrier and cause brain fog, learning difficulties, hyperactivity, and mood swings. And since 90% of the brain’s neurotransmitters are produced in the gut, an inflamed gut can be linked to depression and other psychiatric issues.
But here’s the good news…
Changing your family’s diet can benefit everyone. It’s entirely possible to heal the gut wall, heal up the neurons in the brain, create behavioral changes, and help our children thrive. You don’t have to make these changes overnight, mind you — take time to add things into your diet first and slowly let the rest fall away. Every healthy step you take is a step in the right direction!
Good fats are good for the brain. The brain is 70% fat and cholesterol – especially the uber healthy EPA and DHA. The brain thrives beautifully when powered with good dietary fats: avocado, coconut oil, raw nuts and seeds, meat and poultry from pastured, grass-fed animals and their eggs. Good fats boost neurotransmitters in the brain like serotonin and dopamine; these are the feel-good chemical messengers that help concentration, mental clarity, a happy mood, and a calmer sense of self. Good fats also elevate and sustain serotonin levels to fight depression and anxiety and regulate hormones.
Eating protein at meals will also improve brain concentration and mental focus. Nutritional superstars like pastured meats and wild Alaskan salmon will keep the brain happy and nourished. Protein also keeps blood sugar and mood steady throughout the day, helps build muscle and burn body fat, and supports bone density.
The best carb sources are found in vegetables and fruits. Next in line are sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips, winter squashes, and plantains. Beans, lentils, rice, quinoa, millet, and amaranth can also be added in, as can gluten-free oats. The high fiber and protein content of these foods will steady blood sugar levels, boost athletic performance, and help keep your brain energized and focused throughout the day.
Walk the walk: eat with your child – they will watch what you do far more than they will listen to your words. Half the time I get my son to eat healthy and try new foods by letting him eat off my plate.
Breakfast first: When you’re making changes, start with one meal at a time. At breakfast give super powerhouse foods like eggs and fruit, slow-cooked oats topped with flaxseeds, fresh fruit and chopped nuts, or smoked salmon with avocado and strawberries. A fruit smoothie will wake the brain up and energize your kids for the day.
Let them decide what they want to eat within your parameters. Give your children two healthy choices and let them pick one. If they want pizza, try healthier versions (we make ours with a gluten-free crust, dairy-free cheese, and lots of veggies).
Educate: Have talks about what foods are healthy – often. Help your children understand you can’t grow a brain on Twinkies but you can get good grades with real food. Teach them that Olympic athletes go gluten-free to improve athletic performance and that they can build big muscles with fruits and veggies.
Your children will not starve whenever there is healthy food around. I have worked with autistic children and garden-variety picky eaters; kids will eat when they are hungry. Typically it takes three days to get a child to adapt to new foods – so hang in there!
Start with one meal at a time: Give your family time and space to adapt to diet changes in your house by starting with one change at a time. I suggest starting with breakfast first and see if your kids notice feeling more consistent energy throughout the day.
- 1 large banana
- 1 cup wild blueberries
- 1 date
- Handful of spinach
- ½ teaspoon barley grass juice powder
- 1 heaping teaspoon organic cocoa powder
- 1 cup coconut water
- Blend together until smooth; add more coconut water or nut milk if you want a thinner consistency.
Chocolate Hazelnut Smoothie Bowl
- 2 frozen bananas
- ¼ cup hazelnuts, soaked 30 minutes
- 2 tbsp hemp protein
- 2 tbsp raw cacao powder
- ¾ cup almond milk
- 3-4 large medjool dates, pitted
- 1 small banana
- 2 tbsp hazelnuts, chopped
- 1 tbsp cacao nibs
- 1 tbsp hemp seeds
Blend together all the smoothie ingredients until smooth. Pour into a bowl and add toppings. Serve immediately.
Berry Crunch Smoothie Bowl
- 1 cup chopped kale or baby spinach
- 1 tablespoon chia seeds
- 1 cup unsweetened almond milk (or milk of your choice)
- 1½ cups frozen mixed berries
- ½ frozen banana (Yes, you can use a regular banana, but then you may have to add some ice to your smoothie bowl.)
- 1-2 teaspoons raw honey or maple syrup (depending on how sweet you like things)
- ½ banana, sliced
- ¼ cup blueberries
- 2-3 strawberries, sliced
- 1 teaspoon chia seeds
- 2 tablespoons chopped almonds
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened coconut shavings, raw or toasted
- ¼ cup granola of your choice
Place the kale or spinach, chia seeds, and milk in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Add the frozen mixed berries, banana and honey/maple syrup to the blender. Puree, scraping down the sides of the blender periodically, until relatively smooth. Pour smoothie into a bowl and garnish with toppings of your choice.
Gluten-free bread topped with avocado, iodized sea salt, and pomegranate seeds
Mix eggs with broccoli, salt, tomatoes and bake at 350 degrees F for 15 minutes
Steak, avocado, tomatoes
Smoked salmon with cream cheese on rice cakes
- 3 large ripe bananas
- 6 eggs
- 1/3 cup coconut flour
- Coconut oil for frying
Preheat a non-stick skillet over medium heat. (You could preheat more than one skillet to speed up the cooking process.) Place the bananas, eggs, coconut flour and 2 pinches of salt in the blender. Puree until smooth. The batter should be thick, but pourable. If it seems thin, add 1-2 more tablespoons of coconut flour.
Brush the skillet lightly with coconut oil. Pour in a 3-inch circle of batter. Shake the skillet gently to spread the batter into a 4-inch circle. Cook for 2-4 minutes until the bottom of the pancake is golden-brown and the edges are firm. Flip gently with a flexible spatula, and continue cooking another 2-4 minutes. If the bottoms turn dark, lower the heat a little.
*Check my Pinterest account @EstherBlum for more recipe ideas
Lunch Box Love
- HB eggs, peppers, avocado, kiwi
- Grilled chicken strips, jerky, cherry tomatoes, apple slices
- Grass-fed slider burgers with sugar snap peas, carrots, blackberries
- Chicken salad, cucumber slices, pineapple, dried figs
- Natural cold cuts rolled around avocado, pickles, peach slices
- Homemade trail mix: nuts, jerky, dried coconut, dried fruit
- Fruit smoothie
- Yogurt (regular or dairy-free) parfait with berries, pecans and raw honey
- Apples and peanut butter
- Carrots and hummus or guacamole
- Turkey slices rolled around avocado slices
- Celery and almond butter with raisins
- Fried bananas with raw honey and cinnamon
- Mango slices with raspberries on top
- Cucumbers topped with chicken salad
- Homemade LARA bars
Homemade Tortillas topped with peanut butter and bananas
- ½ cup quinoa flour
- ½ cup amaranth flour
- ½ cup millet flour
- 1 ½ teaspoons xanthan gum
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons grapeseed or avocado oil
- ~2/3 cup warm water; start with ½ cup and add more as needed
Mix all ingredients together and let the dough rest for 5 minutes. Roll into balls; place each ball between 2 sheets of parchment paper and use a rolling pin to roll into flat tortillas. Place on a pre-heated non-stick skillet (ceramic nonstick is a safe bet) over medium-high heat until slightly browned on one side (~2 minutes); flip and cook until lightly browned on ether side. Serve immediately. Will keep fresh in a Ziploc bag for up to 3 days.