Q My two-year-old is a very extreme child. If she's happy, she's very happy; but if she's upset—watch out world! I have noticed that she seems to be happier longer when she eats high-protein foods for breakfast. Is there any scientific basis to this, or am I just kidding myself?
A. You are a very observant mother, and your science is correct. High-protein breakfast foods do help a child's behavior. Throughout your child's brain, biochemical messengers called neurotransmitters help the brain make the right connections. Certain foods and combinations of food, influence how these neurotransmitters operate—for better or worse.
Two types of proteins in breakfast foods can have a major impact on neurotransmitters. First, tyrosine, an amino acid, stimulates dopamine and norepinephrine, the transmitters responsible for alertness. Second, the calming protein tryptophan relaxes the brain. A breakfast that balances both types of proteins will start the child off better primed to learn and behave. Protein-rich foods, especially breakfast favorites such as milk, yogurt, eggs and whole grains, all contain tyrosine and tryptophan.
Carbohydrates can also act to calm the brain. But, watch out—some carbs may excite the child too much and lead to upsetting behavior. Since carbohydrates are the main energy source for the brain, the brain can be a real sugar hog. When the brain receives a steady supply of sugars, it functions more steadily. When the body's blood sugar fluctuates up and down, the sugar entering the brain is unsteady. These peaks and valleys in sugar level can result in a child's behavior also becoming "unsteady."
To avoid this behavioral roller coaster, fill your child's diet with calming carbohydrates. Basically, a calming carb is a complex carb—one that is packed with fiber, protein and fat. These other nutrients slow the absorption of sugars into the child's bloodstream and provide a steady supply of fuel. Avoid simple sugars such as corn syrup or just plain sugar. These carbs enter the bloodstream too fast, worsening behavior rather than steadying it.
As you have noticed, proteins don't have this roller-coaster effect on blood sugar. So, the best breakfasts are those that contain complex carbohydrates along with proteins. Compare this to junk-carb breakfasts—pastries and cereals, for instance—that are low in fiber, low in protein, and contain a lot of artificial sweeteners. The brainy breakfast menu looks something like this:
- Scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast, and orange juice
- Yogurt, whole grain cereal, and apple slices
- Whole grain pancakes or waffles, berries, and a glass of milk
- A fruit and yogurt smoothie
- Veggie omelet, bran muffin, and yogurt
Finally, there is yet another protein perk to explain why your child is happier after a balanced breakfast. Junk carbs are rapidly absorbed in the stomach, leaving the child hungry sooner, but proteins satisfy a child's appetite longer so that the child is not hungry as frequently. Since proteins create a "full and satisfied" feeling quicker than carbs, children are unlikely to overeat high-protein foods the way they do high-sugar stuff. A child who is not hungry is usually a happier child.