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7 steps to a smarter child

Reading time: 11 minutes

School’s about to get tougher this September, but you can boost your child’s brain power at any age

Education secretary Michael Gove’s ambitious new plans for a more rigorous primary school curriculum kicks off this month, introducing fractions for five-year-olds and algebra, a complete sweep of British history and a comprehensive survey of Shakespeare by the time they leave for secondary school at 11. If you have children who will be affected by these reforms, they don’t stop there. Today’s teens will be facing tougher GCSEs as well under the government’s plans to introduce reforms by 2015.

Whether or not you agree with Gove’s plans, there’s no doubt school is going to present greater challenges than ever, but there’s plenty you can do to help your children (or grandchildren) meet these tougher standards, including maximizing their ability to learn and retain information.

That’s why WDDTY has assembled seven of the most important steps you can take to ensure your child can keep up with the new demands on brain power, and five things that are sure to lead to dumbing down. Although many of the steps have to do with nutrients and diet, other practices and environmental influences have measurable effects on the IQ (intelligence quotient) too.

The good news is that it’s not too late even if your children are already in their teens. Brain research shows that its neural structure is not hard-wired from childhood, as we used to believe, but plastic-or changeable-depending on nutrition and other factors like which parts of the brain are being used. Teens in particular are in the midst of cerebral upheaval as their brains get rewired in preparation for the challenges of adulthood and reproduction. The bottom line? We can get smarter at any age. Here’s what you can do to help things along.

1.Give them protein for breakfast and don’t let them leave home without eating

There’s no doubt that a high-protein diet can feed those little grey cells. Even babies given a high-protein diet in their first four weeks of life have higher IQs by the time they reach adolescence. Researchers at the University College London Institute of Child Health have discovered that a protein-rich diet increases the size of the brain’s caudate nucleus, a feature associated with higher intelligence. The caudate nucleus has its main growth spurt during the first four weeks following birth.

When two groups of children were tested again as adolescents, those who’d been given a high-protein diet as babies had higher verbal IQ scores, and brain scans revealed their caudate nuclei were larger.1

Serving a high-protein breakfast makes children more alert because it lowers levels of the brain chemical serotonin. Although we tend to load children with processed carbohydrates for breakfast, usually in the form of processed cereals, carbs-which promote the production of serotonin-tend to make you drowsy. If you opt instead for healthy cereals like muesli, add nuts to boost the protein content.

And make eating breakfast non-negotiable. If your child refuses to eat much, make a high-protein smoothie with yoghurt or tofu.

2. Make sure they eat their greens (and yellows, reds and oranges)

No doubt about it anymore. New evidence shows that children who eat a diet high in fruit and veg have higher IQs than those who subsist on a diet of processed and sugary foods. Based on data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which tracked some 14,000 children born in 1992 and 1992, a recent five-year analysis showed a direct correlation between eating habits and IQ scores. Researchers assigned a point system for healthy eating, and for every point gained, the researchers saw a 1.2-point increase in IQ. Every point lost by eating processed food resulted in a corresponding 1.67 fall in IQ brain-power score.

If your children are preschool, it’s the best time to start if you want maximum benefits, although it’s never too late to turn a bad diet around.2

3. Ditch all dental fluorides

Research shows that fluoride is a neurotoxin that accumulates in brain tissue and affects brain development, yet chances are your children and you are drowning in the stuff. On average, we ingest up to 1,000 times more fluoride than any other heavy metal through fluoridated water, food and dental products that have added fluoride.

The latest evidence from Harvard confirms that high levels of fluoride in drinking water dramatically lower IQs in children, and may even cause or exacerbate learning difficulties in children born with lower IQs. The researchers, who analyzed 27 previously published papers, found a direct link between IQ scores and levels of fluoride in the public water supply. Children living in low-fluoride areas consistently had IQ scores a significant 0.45 points higher than children in high-fluoride regions-a difference that can also have a substantial negative impact on children already at the lower end of the IQ spectrum by causing greater learning difficulties.3

Choose dental products like toothpaste free of fluoride (see page 86 for a good selection). If you’re worried about your child’s teeth, get an electric toothbrush, teach them how to floss properly and opt for fissure sealants for those especially at risk.

4. Feed them the good fats

Top of this list are, of course, the omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) found in fish oils. Fish oils contain EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are both omega-3 fats. EPA and DHA have numerous effects that make them superior to flaxseed and other vegetable sources of omega-3s. Flaxseed oils contain alpha-linolenic acid (LNA, used by the body to make EPA and DHA), but the amount of LNA converted to EPA can be very low.4 Although it’s always been thought that 14 per cent of LNA is converted to EPA, in one study only 0.2 per cent of the LNA in a flaxseed oil supplement was available for conversion to EPA compared with 23 per cent of the EPA in fish oil available for conversion to DHA.5

Copious research confirms that fish-oil supplements can dramatically accelerate learning. In one small study, after just three months of taking two supplements a day of VegEPA, which contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, children were a year ahead of their peers in reading ability, and demonstrated far neater and more accurate handwriting.

Brain scans also showed far higher levels of NAA (N-acetylaspartate), a biochemical indicator of brain development, an improvement normally seen only after three years of growth. The study children were also encouraged to cut down on fast foods and fizzy drinks, and to exercise more.6

Fish oils can also protect the growing brains of your children from the worst effects of junk food. New evidence from the University of Liverpool shows that supplements appear to protect the brain against inflammation triggered by a high-fat junk-food diet, and can help restore normal brain functioning.

A diet high in processed foods prevents the brain from generating new nerve cells by suppressing the hormones that protect neurons and stimulate their growth, while also increasing the production of inflammatory molecules and triglyceride fats. But when omega-3s are consumed, they interfere with the triglyceride process and reestablis
h healthy nerve growth.7

And don’t shy away from fish. Although concerns have been raised about mercury levels and other pollutants in fish, researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health believe that the goodness in fish outweighs any dangers from the methylmercury they absorb from swimming in polluted waters. Also, two servings of oily fish a week can protect a child from ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), they say.8

Aim to serve fish two or three times a week, and incorporate plenty of flaxseed and purslane (the only veggie source of omega-3s) into the diet if you and your children are vegetarian.

For supplements, nutritional expert Dr Leo Galland, author of Superimmunity for Kids, recommends one 15-mL Tbsp of flaxseed oil or a 5-mL tsp of cod liver oil a day, or 2 Tbsp of walnut oil daily. One caveat: fish oils can lower blood levels of vitamin E (and other fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A), so if you give your children fish-oil supplements, make sure to give them at least

100 IU of vitamin E to counteract

this effect.9 Or simply add fish to the diet.

Don’t overlook saturated fats

Although the received wisdom has it that saturated fats are bad for children and contribute to ADHD, they actually assist in the conversion of EFAs into the long-chain forms the body needs. Saturated fatty acids are mostly present in animal fats, which also carry copious amounts of vitamins D and A, also crucial for brain development (see number 5). In fact, parents who restrict saturated fats like butter and meat in the belief that they contribute to ADHD may simply be making the problem worse. Always choose butter over margarine and full-fat milk over skimmed (and preferably use organic milk that hasn’t been homogenized and, if possible, pasteurized).

5. Chuck them outside

Children stay indoors so much these days in front of the TV or computer that nearly three-quarters of American children are low in vitamin D, the vitamin that mostly comes from sunshine, according to new data released by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). This translates to up to 58 million American children with an “insufficiency” or downright deficiency of the vitamin, leading to high blood pressure, rickets and unhealthy bones. But the vitamin is also crucial for the health and development of the nervous system, including the brain. As Britain has even less sunshine than the US, it’s likely that the problem is every bit as severe in this country. Researchers blame the problem on sedentary lives spent indoors watching TV or playing computer games together with the overuse of powerful sunblocks.

So make sure that children are out in the sunshine for at least 15 to 20 minutes a day, says researcher Michal Melamed at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University. And unless they burn easily, don’t put sunscreen on them until they’ve been out in the sun for at least 10 minutes.10

6. Keep metal out of their mouths (and everywhere else)

Get rid of mercury in your own mouth (if you’re pregnant) and don’t allow your children to have ‘silver’ fillings-ever. Research has found a direct link between levels of mercury in the mother’s hair at the time of birth and the likelihood of the child developing ADHD. One study found that for every 1 mcg/g (microgram per gram) of mercury in the mother’s hair sample, the child was 1.4 times more likely to be inattentive and 1.8 times more likely to be hyperactive by the age of eight.11

Like fluoride, the aluminium sulphate present in our water supply has also been found to cause brain damage.

After 20 tonnes of aluminium was accidentally emptied into a water reservoir serving 20,000 people in Cornwall, a considerable number of those affected began suffering from problems with memory and concentration, 400 of them even after two years.

When researchers examined them further and compared them with their siblings who hadn’t been exposed, they found similar blood concentrations of aluminium, but vast differences on actual test parameters.

Those who’d been exposed to the toxic dumping performed worse on tests measuring motor skills, memory and concentration, suggesting that the aluminium from the accident wasn’t in their blood at all, but had lodged in the brain.

Other studies have shown that exposure to aluminium causes changes in the brain similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease.12

Besides aluminium, children with developmental and behavioural problems may have high blood concentrations of lead. Researchers from the South & West Devon Health Authority examined samples from 69 ‘problem’ children and found significantly higher lead concentrations in their blood than in 136 normal control children; 12 per cent even had toxic concentrations (more than 100 mg/L) of the neurotoxic metal.13

7. Encourage them to meditate

Meditation appears to permanently enhance brain receptivity. Several studies have tested the effect of meditation on our ability to react to repetitive stimuli like light flashes or clicks. Ordinarily a person gets used to the clicks and so, in a sense, the brain switches off and stops reacting. But studies show that the brains of meditators continue to react to the stimuli-an indication of a heightened perception of every moment.14

Mindfulness meditation (non-judgmental focus on everyday activities with your five senses) helps meditators remain exquisitely sensitive to external stimuli. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital-East using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure minuscule changes in the brain discovered that experienced meditators have a significant increase of signalling in the neural structures of the brain involved in attention. This neural activity evolves over time and increases with meditative experience.15 The researchers also discovered that those parts of the brain associated with attention, awareness of sensation, sensory stimuli and sensory processing were actually thicker than normal, and that the increases in cortical thickness were proportional to the overall amount of time spent meditating.

Besides increasing mental ability, meditation also appears to integrate emotional and cognitive processes, so aiding intuitive learning. In the fMRI study above, the researchers found evidence of activation of the limbic brain-the primitive, so-called ‘instinctive’ part of the brain involved with primitive emotions and ‘gut hunches’. The brain’s powers of observation increase, allowing more information in, including the kind received intuitively.

Never cook with aluminium utensils and opt for an under-sink filtration system that removes all heavy metals like lead from the water supply. If your house is old, check what your pipes are made of too.

5 kiddy brain killers

1- Junk food

A diet heavy on ‘kiddy foods’ like fish fingers, fast-food burgers and other processed stuff prevents the brain from generating new nerve cells by suppressing hormones that protect neurons and stimulate their growth, while increasing the production of inflammatory molecules and triglyceride fats.1

And most processed foods contain trans fatty acids, which inhibit conversion to long-chain fatty acids like omega-3s.

Aside from lowering your child’s IQ, fast food increases the risk of severe asthma by a whopping 39 per cent in teens and 27 per cent in younger children. Researchers from the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) came to this conclusion after surveying 319,000 teens and 181,000 six-year-olds living in 51 countries about the food they ate and illnesses they had. A clear association emerged between eating fast food and immune-related diseases like asthma and eczema.2

It’s almost impossible to ban junk food from children’s diets altogether, but you can make it more difficult by never having it at home.

2- Fizzy drinks

While you’re at it, keep soft drinks out of the kitchen larder too. You may pop a teaspoon of sugar into your tea or coffee every morning, but every time children drink a 330-mL can of any soft drink, they’re swallowing some 10 teaspoonsful of sugar, which will certainly not help the learning godown.3Get them into the habit of drinking water and juice at home.

3- Wheat

Wheat (as well as soy, barley and rye) has high levels of glutamic and aspartic acids, which can affect the brain’s neurons, causing overactivation of the nerve-cell receptors and possibly leading to nerve injury.4

As covered in our June 2013 issue, wheat is toxic to the brain because each grain of wheat contains a substance called ‘wheat germ agglutinin’ (WGA), which is highly toxic and inflammatory to the heart, brain and immune system.5And the antioxidant agents in wheat called ‘phytates’ interfere with vital minerals (calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium) that are essential for the growing brain.

4- Chinese takeaways and kiddy sweeteners

The flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate

(MSG) and aspartame, the artificial sweetener in diet sodas, are considered ‘excitotoxins’, which are lethal to children’s brains.

According to Professor J. Timothy Greenamyre, a neuroscientist then at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, “Glutamate has neurotoxic properties and can produce ‘excitotoxic’ lesions reminiscent of human neurodenegerative disorders.”6

These can disrupt certain brain pathways, causing memory loss and other cortical ‘disconnections’ like those found in Alzheimer’s.7

As for aspartame, another excitotoxin, there is evidence that the side-effects of artificial sweeteners tend to be exacerbated in children, causing hyperactivity, low intelligence, poor school performance and irritability.8

Watch out for sweetened items like kiddy vitamins, gum or juice drinks. And whenever you order a Chinese, ask them to hold the MSG.

5- Mobile phones

Some 200 or more studies now confirm the damage to the growing brain caused by mobile phones. In addition to facing a greater risk of brain tumours,9children and teenagers who grow up using mobile phones will very soon start suffering from learning difficulties, attention deficits, sleep problems and memory loss, according to Russian research.

The Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection has appealed to governments and manufacturers to consider either restricting the amount of time children spend on mobile phones or developing new and safer technology that takes

into account children’s developing brains.10

It’s almost impossible these days for any parent to avoid giving their preteen or teen a mobile phone, but you can try to limit their use or encourage them to text instead, to keep in touch with their friends via Facebook and to hold the phone away from their heads when they’re using it and never keep it next to them when they’re sleeping.


1. Br J Nutr, 2013; 109: 1573-89

2. Thorax, 2013; 68: 351-60

3. J Epidemiol Community Health, 2006; 60: 750

4. Ji S. The Dark Side of Wheat-New Perspectives on Celiac Disease & Wheat Intolerance; available online at

5. Brain Res, 1986; 393: 169-75

6. Arch Neurol, 1986; 43: 1058-63

7. Cerebrovasc Brain Metab Rev, 1993; 5: 61-94; Neurobiol Aging, 1989; 10: 593-602

8. Roberts HJ. Aspartame (NutraSweet): Is It Safe? Philadelphia: The Charles Press, 1989

9. BioInitiative 2012, online at


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