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By Barbara Quinn

RISMEDIA, September 29, 2008- (MCT)-My eldest daughter, an animal nutritionist, gave me a lecture about feeding my dog. “What you feed him,” she explained, “is not that bad, but …”

Then she went on to justify the brand she recommends because it is backed by qualified animal nutrition experts.

“I know how much you love that dog,” she said. “And if feeding him right extends his life even six months, it’s worth the extra cost.”

I promised to make the switch.

And it got me thinking about how we sometimes feed our children. It’s not that bad, but … how we feed and care for them has a profound influence on how they learn and develop.

“Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain,” according to UCLA neurophysiology professor Fernando Gomez-Pinilia in a recent article by the Center for Health and Nutrition Research at the University of California-Davis. Pinilia explains that a balanced diet, regular exercise and adequate sleep actually protect the brain and ward off mental disorders such as depression.

Here are some recommendations:

– Rethink food _ literally. Unhealthy diets _ especially those high in trans fats and saturated fats _ adversely affect learning, according to Gomez-Pinilia. Other fats, such as the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, walnuts and flaxseed, are essential for normal brain function and have been shown to enhance cognitive abilities. Studies show that children with increased intakes of omega-3 fatty acids have better reading and spelling performance and fewer behavioral problems.

DHA _ the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain _ is especially important during periods of brain development such as pregnancy, infancy and childhood. One easy way to add more omega-3 DHA to your child’s diet: Pack a sandwich made with canned salmon or tuna a couple times a week. Folic acid (folate) is a B-vitamin also found to be essential for brain function. Beans, oranges and green vegetables add this important nutrient to your child’s diet.

– Understand food portions. Children need “child-sized” portions to keep them from having adult-sized medical problems such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. One of our local school districts, Spreckels, sent a paper home to parents this year describing what child-sized portions look like: “CD-sized pancakes, a cup of salad greens the size of a baseball, and a half-baseball sized serving of pasta, rice or potato.” Very sensible.

– Schedule time for physical activities. When we help kiddos find time to play or be active for just one hour a day, we help their brains as well as their bodies. More kudos to Spreckels School for its list of “afternoon sports-related activities for your child” _ an alphabetical list of local programs and activities along with phone numbers and Web site addresses.

– Plan for adequate sleep. Besides the fact that unrested brains don’t do so well in school, kids (and adults) who don’t get enough sleep are also more prone to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Do the whole family a favor, parents. Set reasonable bedtime expectations.

Quick lunch ideas: Keep a variety of healthful foods on hand for quickly assembled meals. And remember a balanced lunch includes at least three items:

1. Protein (meat, fish, chicken, cheese, peanut butter, yogurt, milk.)
2. Fruit and/or vegetable
3. Whole grain (bread, cereal, cracker, pasta, rice, tortilla.)

Make the switch.

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified pediatric obesity specialist at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. E-mail her at

© 2008, The Monterey County Herald (Monterey, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.