How to Improve Attention, Focus, and Memory in Children
In a world full of distraction, it has become increasingly important to help our children develop the essential skills of attention, focus, and memory. 2020 especially, with the increased amount of remote learning that Covid-19 has required, has highlighted for many parents just how difficult it is to keep their children on task and learning effectively. The increasing prevalence of screens; in education, entertainment, and even fitness and cooking; means that at all times, a ‘more exciting’ version of entertainment is too easily accessible. This invasion of tech is tricky to conquer, but there are other ways that we can help to encourage the ability to focus, pay attention, and improve memory in our children.
Some of the most important aspects to consider to assist with improved focus and memory are; adequate sleep, exercise, hydration and, of course, diet, which is the aspect that this article will focus on. Our children’s diets have a huge impact on their cognitive development, concentration levels, moods, and energy levels. Diets have the ability to support optimal concentration, mood and memory if they consist of adequate nutrients, however, certain additives may also be contributing to weakened focus, cognitive ability, and low energy.
Food Additives That Can Impair Cognitive Ability
There is increasing evidence to show that additives in food may contribute to disease and impaired development within the population. (1) Children, in particular, are susceptible to food additives because they ingest greater amounts of food per kg of body weight, and their key organs and metabolic systems are still undergoing a lot of changes as they grow. (1) Of particular concern are nitrates, nitrites, artificial food colourings, and sodium benzoate. (1, 2)
The use of nitrates and nitrites as preservatives for cured fish, and processed meats, fish and cheese, have been subjects of enduring concern in regard to human health, particularly in children. Nitrates, such as perchlorate, can disrupt thyroid function by blocking the NIS (Sodium/Iodide Symporter), inhibiting the uptake of iodine and potentially leading to deficiencies. (1) Early life iodine deficiency can have a lifelong impact on cognitive ability. (1)
Studies have also examined the potential negative effect of artificial food colourings and sodium benzoate on children’s cognitive and behavioural abilities. These additives have been implicated in an increase in hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattentive behaviour in children. (2) This effect has been shown in numerous studies, including one double-blinded, randomised controlled trial which showed adverse effect of these additives on the hyperactive behaviour of 3-year old’s, and 8-9 year old’s. (2)
Foods + Nutrients That Improve Attention and Reduce Hyperactivity
Looking at your child’s diet as a whole is also an important step to assist with increased attention span and reduced hyperactivity. One systematic review (considered the highest level of evidence) examined the relationship of a child’s whole diet and its effect on Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and found that the healthier dietary patterns, characterised by higher consumption of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, were protective against hyperactivity and other symptoms of ADHD. (3) In contrast, dietary patterns that were high in refined sugars and saturated fats, were associated with an increase in hyperactivity and other symptoms of ADHD. (3)
The supporting role of particular nutrients, such as zinc and folate, which are naturally more abundant in this healthier dietary pattern, help to verify this result. (3) One study examining zinc supplementation for children showed a reduction in ADHD symptoms compared to those receiving the placebo. (3) We know that a deficiency in folate may cause difficulty concentrating, irritability and fatigue. (4) Folate can be found naturally occurring in many foods, including vegetables (especially leafy greens), meat, poultry, seafood, fruits, nuts, beans, peas, eggs, and grains. Foods with the highest amount of folate are spinach, liver, asparagus, and brussels sprouts. (4) Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids have also been shown to reduce and improve symptoms of ADHD. (3)
Don’t Overlook Food Packaging
Multiple chemicals used in food packaging leach into our foods and, inevitably, our bodies. Some of the most concerning chemicals are:
Phthalates – found in adhesives and plasticizers from the manufacturing process.
Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) – used in greaseproof paper and cardboard food packaging.
Perchlorate – as mentioned above, perchlorate is a nitrate used in food preservation, however, it is also found in antistatic agents used for packaging that comes into contact with dry foods with surfaces that do not contain free fats or oils. (1) Perchlorate exposure during early life can hinder brain development, and the hormonal alterations it may provoke can lead to lifelong reduced cognitive abilities. (1) Powdered formula for infants may result in high exposure to perchlorate due to its associated packaging materials. (1)
Bisphenols (e.g. BPA) – found in metal linings to prevent corrosion, polycarbonate plastics, and epoxy resins. (1, 5) BPA is a known endocrine-disrupting compound, even at low doses. (5) BPA has been shown to hinder normal brain development and subsequent behaviour patterns related to social and non-social behaviours by interfering with estrogen, androgen, and glucocorticoid hormones, as well as affecting certain neural and endocrine circuits. (5)
Human studies have shown an increase in hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, and depression, and a decrease in attention span for children who have been exposed to BPA, especially in utero. (5)
We all want our children to reach their full potential and thrive throughout their schooling years. Whilst it is basically impossible to control outside distractions, there are things we can do as parents that will give them the best chance at being focused, attentive learners and listeners. As well as adequate sleep and movement, it is extremely important to consider the effect that diet can have on our children’s brain development and behaviour, through what is actually ingested within different foods, but also in unwanted chemicals from food packaging.
1. Trasande L, Shaffer RM, Sathyanarayana S, AAP COUNCIL ON ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH. Food Additives and Child Health. Pediatrics. 2018;142(2):e20181410
2. McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, Crumpler D, Dalen L, Grimshaw K, et al. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial The Lancet. 2007;370:1560-67.
3. Del-Ponte B, Quinte GC, Cruz S, Grellert M, Santos IS. Dietary patterns and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of affective disorders. 2019 Jun 1;252:160-73.
4. National Institutes of Health. Folate Fact Sheet for Health Professionals [Internet]. 2020 [cited July 7 2020]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional/
5. Perez-Lobato R, Mustieles V, Calvente I, Jimenez-Diaz I, Ramos R, Caballero-Casero N, López-Jiménez FJ, Rubio S, Olea N, Fernandez MF. Exposure to bisphenol A and behavior in school-age children. Neurotoxicology. 2016 Mar 1;53:12-9.
Written By Clare Carrick
Clare Carrick is an accredited nutritionist whose special interests involve gut health, diet and its effect on mental health, early childhood nutrition, and the impact that diet during pregnancy can have on the health of the offspring. Clare studied a BHSc (nutrition & health promotion) at Deakin University, and completed an internship at the Food & Mood Centre, which specialises in nutritional psychiatry.
Although Clare enjoys getting deep in the science behind nutrition, she is also all about balance! Life is busy for her with two daughters under five and a growing nutrition business and, in all honesty, coffee is often her 1st thought when the alarm goes off in the morning! Whilst the abundance and diversity of the Mediterranean diet is definitely a favourite way of eating for Clare, perhaps her favourite part of it is the bit where she gets to sink into the couch at the end of a long day with a glass of red and know that the polyphenols are doing good things for her microbes.