Esther Palmer’s talk links eating habits with student behavior
Oct. 20, 2011
By Steven Frank
During the question and answer period that followed nutritionist and occupational therapist Esther Palmer’s presentation on how food impacts learning and behavior in children, held at Williston Central School Tuesday evening, fifth-grader Bia Mele raised her hand.
“My mom, who is a great mom, makes broccoli for me all the time and I love it,” she said. “I think, maybe, that kids aren’t used to eating healthy … Once you start eating unhealthy, it’s tough to break it.”
Bia’s philosophy impressed Palmer and reinforced the evening’s theme. Palmer, a Williston resident who holds an educational certification in whole foods nutrition from Bauman College, switched to whole foods (those that are non-processed without added ingredients) in 2000. A mother of three, Palmer offers whole food cooking classes and camps for children.
On Tuesday, she spoke to an audience of approximately 20 people about the importance of healthy eating — particularly whole foods — in terms of educational performance and student behavior.
“Our brains developed before processed foods came into being,” Palmer said. “We changed the food system, but our bodies don’t evolve as quickly. That’s why we see obesity, hypertension and diabetes.”
During the presentation, which ran for approximately 90 minutes and was sponsored by the school’s Families as Partners organization, Palmer showed a short video on how food changed the dynamics at Appleton (Wisc.) Central Alternative High School in 1997. One Friday, students had soda and candy machines at their disposal. The following Monday, the machines were gone and replaced with water coolers and fresh vegetables in the cafeteria. Members of the school administration attested that instances of violence and other behavioral issues dramatically decreased following the switchover.
“This can happen anywhere,” Palmer said. “Williston has made steps in this direction and there are still more to take.”
Palmer, who urged the crowd to “get back to nature,” spoke about omega-3 — a fatty acid she said children need more of to enhance the development of a brain that requires a large amount of fat. Some of the sources of omega-3 she suggested include seeds, nuts, flax and coldwater fish.
“Some of the behaviors associated with ADD (attention deficit disorder) can be helped by more omega-3,” Palmer claimed.
Palmer also emphasized the importance of fresh fruit buying organic whenever possible because imported produce can be heavily contaminated with pesticides. The items she singled out as having a large amount of pesticides include blueberries and apples.
Palmer said foods with other chemicals, such as food dyes and preservatives, should also be avoided. She cited a study that claims there are currently 45 million different chemicals in foods consumed by humans.
“There are allergic reactions to chemicals, resulting in hyperactivity and behavior issues,” said Palmer, who added that it’s more important to look at an item’s list of ingredients than nutritional information.
One drawback to switching over to whole and organic foods is price. With healthy items typically costing more than unhealthy ones, drastic changes aren’t always feasible.
“I think the key thing is to figure out how much of a priority you can make in feeding your children healthier,” Palmer said. “It’s about making steps here and there, and working on cutting down processed food.”
Healthy Meal Tips
Some of Esther Palmer’s suggestions for breakfast, lunch and snacks include the following.
- Oatmeal with handful nuts or seeds, milk, cinnamon, fresh or frozen berries.
- Cold cereal (low sugar varieties) with milk, sprinkled with wheat germ, chai seeds and banana and fresh orange or grapefruit.
- Plain yogurt sweetened with maple syrup, fresh or frozen/thawed berries, wheat germ, ground flax seed and sprinkled with granola.
- Whole grain bread with nut butter and banana, fresh or dried fruits or unsweetened coconut. Serve with citrus or berries.
- Free range egg on toast or in whole grain tortilla with slice of cheese, and salsa. Serve with green pepper or red pepper.
- Tuna fish made with canola oil, red onion, celery, pepper and stuffed in pita pocket. Add sprouts or lettuce/leftover salad. Serve with cut up veggies and dip.
- Tortilla chips with bean dip and guacamole, fresh salad with cheese and dressing. Finish with dates, plain or stuffed with a nut.
- Leftover soup served with cheesy bread and veggies.
- Burritos with salsa and salad with dressing. Serve with fruit (kiwi, raspberries, orange wedges) and an ounce of dark chocolate.
- Popcorn made with olive oil and butter, sprinkled with nutritional yeast, sesame seeds (optional, and really good toasted first), spice (dill is really good as well as Mexican spice) and sea salt. Serve with veggies and dip.
- Whole grain bread with mix 50/50 olive oil/canola oil with garlic or spices, for dipping. Serve with fresh fruit or vegetables.
- Let kids make a granola mix with rolled oats, seeds/nuts (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, almonds), dried fruits, touch of canola oil and maple syrup. Should be sticky but not wet. Will need a spoon!