Pediatrician and endocrinologist
"Sleep, exercise and nutrition are the building blocks for a healthy mind and a healthier society."
Healthy habits to improve brain function in children and adults
Brains are like engines that are fueled by dopamine. We have to find ways to constantly fill up on dopamine. As we are physical bodies, we have to nurture our executive functions and prefrontal cortex in order for the engine to work. We can do this by sleeping well. A lack of sleep leads to changes in a person's executive functions. That's why, when we don't sleep well, we are less able to control our behavior and focus.
By eating and sleeping well and exercising, you can improve your brain's functional health and executive functions. As far as nutrition is concerned, it's important to eat a varied diet and have breakfast. Eating breakfast helps improve your mood and cognitive performance and aids weight loss. I'm not aware of any drug that can do all this. We have all the information we need, but we don't act on it. From a nutritional perspective, it's good to eat a wide range of foods so you get enough omega-3, iron and magnesium. You can top up your stores of these vitamins and minerals by eating well. You don't have to take tablets to get enough of these compounds, just eat well.
The basis of a good diet is the Mediterranean diet (i.e. our diet). This is very important to bear in mind because it's extremely healthy in terms of brain function and also cardiovascular health, as it helps to prevent tumors from forming. It's also good to include a lot of unprocessed foods in your diet. In my opinion, we eat too many processed foods nowadays. We prefer to buy pre-prepared foods that are easy to cook. However, healthy cooking doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, it's not complicated at all. Basically, the mistake we've made is to replace basic foods with processed ones.
Those of us who no longer live in a Mediterranean country really miss sitting down to eat together. By sitting down to eat together, you can enjoy quality time with your children or partner. I ask my patients to sit down to eat with their family. As well as having an effect on obesity, I've noticed that sitting down to eat together also has an effect on the family. They talk to each other more. It strikes me that a lot of families don't talk to each other. We have to generate spaces where we can talk to each other, because talking is extremely powerful. I think family is the last defense we have to stop ourselves from becoming entirely mechanical.
Our obsession with food is more about image than nutrition, and I think that's problematic, not in terms of academic performance, but as regards the society we're creating. We've been indoctrinated to believe that good-looking people are more successful, and I think our society is becoming more shallow as a result. I think it's good to focus on having a healthy diet, but I think our obsession with being more attractive is ridiculous.
I think we lack good advice about nutrition. The messages we receive, which often aren't scientifically proven, have a lot of impact. There are a lot of diets out there that aren't necessarily good for your health, such as those that involve taking supplements and diets with a lot of protein in them. What we need to return to is knowing how to cook, how to eat well and to eat foods that are in season, that's incredibly important. We have been evolving for thousands, even millions, of years. Since we lived in caves, we have evolved to eat certain types of foods. That's why it's important to hit the rewind button a bit as regards changing our habits and starting to eat healthy foods that are in season, rather than jumping on diet bandwagons that are neither healthy or necessary.
Obesity is just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that children aren't getting the nutrition they need, and this is reflected throughout society. They may not be obese, but lots of children and adults have a very poor diet. We have to eat well in order for our brains to work properly. If we don't eat the right types of foods to give them the fuel they need to work well, they won't be able to generate knowledge effectively. One thing we can do is to try to make healthy eating more fun. Health is a really important issue, so schools should try to help children choose healthy eating options, and not just because of obesity. There are some frightening statistics out there which show that obesity is just the tip of the iceberg. For instance, in Spain almost 20% of children are obese or overweight. However, by encouraging children to live more healthy lives, schools can help to create a much healthier society.
Obesity is a delicate subject, but it is possible to teach children about health so they become much more aware of some of the issues. Sleep is equally as important as nutrition in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. If a child's not doing so well at school, I think the first thing a teacher should ask their parents is how well they're sleeping. Because, sometimes we get so caught up in focusing on other things that we forget to think about sleep at all. Sleep, exercise and nutrition are all important if we want to try to create a healthier society. They also help to improve mental health.
Find out more about Javier Blumenfeld
- Javier Blumenfeld is a Pediatrician with a Master's Degree in Pediatric Endocrinology and Nutrition. He has a PhD in biomedical sciences and is in charge of the Pediatric Endocrinology Unit at the Hospital de El Escorial (El Escorial Hospital) in Madrid. Mr. Blumenfeld is an expert in Neuroeducation and is a member of the Observatorio de la Universidad Rey Juan Carlos para el desarrollo de innovaciones educativas (Rey Juan Carlos University's Center for the development of innovative educational practices). He is also involved in creating healthy eating programs for kids.
- What is neuroeducation?
Neuroeducation is what little we know about what education is from a neurological or medical perspective. In this context, education basically means how the brain gathers content. I liken the brain to a computer or a machine. Each time we learn something new, our brains create a new connection that wasn't there before. Neuroeducation is what happens to the brain when we learn things and how we can generate connections (new knowledge) more effectively.