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Don't Forget Nutrition in Your Back-to-school Prep

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With back-to-school preparations in full swing, good nutrition may be the last thing on your mind.

But eating well is essential for a healthy brain, says Monika Woolsey, a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist in Glendale, Ariz.

"To learn effectively, and for your mind and body to work effectively, your brain needs energy," said Woolsey. "Eating well improves your ability to concentrate - something that is important in and out of the classroom, for kids and adults alike."

Everything your body does - initiating movement, interpreting the senses and controlling behavior - has its origin in the brain. A poorly fueled brain cannot monitor and coordinate all these functions as effectively as one that has good fuel, and enough fuel.

"Feed your brain a low-energy diet and it won't perform well," said Woolsey. "Feed it a high-energy diet and your 'personal computer' will work smoothly and efficiently."

To be productive, your brain is highly dependent upon the right foods and fluids, said registered dietitian Dayle Hayes of Billings, Mont.

"If you are hungry and/or thirsty, your brain will not be able to listen, think or create with maximum effectiveness," she said.

Many nutrients contribute to better brain function: carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and other essential chemicals. That's why it is important to include a wide range of foods from all of the food groups.

-Carbohydrate-containing foods (pasta, rice, bread, cereal, fruits and vegetables) provide glucose, the brain's preferred energy source. Since the brain cannot store glucose, it needs a continuous source of fuel from foods.

-Protein-containing foods provide the building blocks for some neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters transmit information within the brain and transmit information from the brain to all the parts of the body. Your brain also uses protein to grow new connections.

-Fat is essential for brain structure and function. Brain cells are largely composed of fat, thus too little dietary fat can cause nerve cell deterioration. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important for proper brain function.

The highest concentration of omega-3 fats is found in fish, specifically fattier species like herring, mackerel, bluefish, salmon and lake trout. Omega-3s are also available in plant foods: green leafy vegetables, flaxseeds, canola oil, soy products and nuts.

Food sources of omega-6 fatty acids include sunflower, safflower, corn and sesame oils.

-B-complex vitamins promote brain health by enhancing memory, protecting nerve tissue against oxidation and insulating nerve cells. B vitamins also are used to create neurotransmitters. Foods rich in B vitamins include meat, whole grains, rice, wheat germ and nuts.

-Many other vitamins and minerals are important for brain health, including vitamins C and E, beta carotene, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Zinc and magnesium help with proper nerve and cell function, while selenium, beta-carotene and vitamins C and E work as antioxidants to protect the brain from cell damage.

Finally, along with eating smarter, don't forget about exercise.

"Physical activity is good for the brain as well as the body," says Woolsey. "Research suggests that maintaining a healthy flow of blood and oxygen protects the brain."


(Marsha Erickson is a registered dietitian at Miller-Dwan Medical Center in Duluth, Minn. Have a question about nutrition? Write to her c/o The Duluth News Tribune, 424 W. First St., Duluth, Minn. 55802 or e-mail her at


(c) 2003, Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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