The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Feed Your Mind
What you eat affects your mood
Jessica Flayser

When I moved to a group home, I didn’t know what I’d get to eat. I figured the house would have food similar to what I’d been served in New York City public schools or at the city’s Children’s Center, where you go when you first enter the foster care system. Both places have fairly healthy food. I was shocked to see that the group home was full of unhealthy fare like cookies, chips, pastries, and sugary cereal. The meals prepared in my house featured hot dogs, French fries, fried chicken, and ribs swimming in BBQ sauce.

I started to feel sluggish and weighed down from all that junk. I was uncomfortable and very unhappy with both my weight and not having control over such an important part of my everyday life. Once in a while it’s nice to treat your sweet tooth, but food needs to nourish our bodies—and our minds.

To find out more about how food affects us, I interviewed Pamela M. Peeke, M.D., author of The Hunger Fix, about how to eat for maximum health, specifically mental health.

Of course, food alone will not dramatically reduce depression or stress, but in combination with talk therapy sessions and exercise (like walking instead of hopping on the bus when your destination is closer than 10 blocks away), we’ll be able to improve our mood. With all that foster youth go through, we don’t need unhealthy food adding to our stresses.

Q: Teens in foster care are under a lot of stress. How are stress and eating connected?

A: Stress by itself erodes immune function and when you don’t get enough sleep, your appetite changes, so stress has a profound effect on eating.

Unfortunately, people sometimes respond to stress by eating the wrong things. When you’re under stress, especially toxic stress, you feel helpless, hopeless, defeated. Sometimes people self-soothe by eating sugary, fatty goods that help numb the pain of stress temporarily, but in the long run make us feel worse.

If you eat appropriately, you can help yourself. If you eat decent protein, for example turkey or milk, you can modify stress and feel better.

Q: What is the connection between food and brain health?

A: Some 60% of the solid matter in the brain is fatty membranes. High-quality fat helps maintain these membranes so they’re flexible. That lets you transmit and receive information as efficiently as possible. You can get good fat, not the crap fat, from almonds, avocado, olive oil, and from 2% milk and yogurt or cottage cheese. We want the appropriate amount of fat up there.

Calcium, dairy, and dark leafy greens help the brain work more efficiently. From plants you get phyto-nutrients, plant compounds that have tremendous heath benefits for the brain. Phyto-nutrients are what give fruits and vegetables such as kale, spinach, and collard greens their color. The deeper the color, the higher the level of phyto-nutrients.

image by YC-Art Dept

Carbs (carbohydrates) are the main source of energy for the brain. It’s important to have high-quality carbs, not white sugar. This means fruit, vegetables, and whole grains like whole wheat bread. [Whole grains are wheat, barley, oats, brown rice, and other grains that have not had any of their parts removed.]

Finally, eat whole foods [foods that haven’t been processed or had anything added to them, like fruits and vegetables and meats]. B-vitamins, found in dairy and leafy greens, help us maintain healthy brain cells. Seafood, meats, spinach, and beans have zinc, which is essential to learning.

For canned or frozen fruit or vegetables, read labels and avoid any addition. Run if you see syrup, butter, or goopy sauce added. You want the plain, simple vegetable or fruit.

Q: What foods reduce brain function and what foods slow you down?

A: Caffeinated drinks—soda and energy drinks is one. Caffeine leaches water and has a strong diuretic effect [that means it makes you pee and you get dehydrated]. Dehydration leads to dizziness, fatigue, and cognitive decline. That can affect school performance. Drink more water and less caffeinated trash.

Q: What foods contribute to a happy attitude?

A: Tryptophan is an amino acid which helps you produce serotonin. Serotonin is a brain chemical that makes you feel contented. Eggs, cheese, fish, and meat have tryptophan. Also, Tyrosine is an amino acid found in almonds, avocado, and bananas used to make dopamine, which helps you feel enthusiasm for life.

Q: Also relevant to foster care, what are the cheapest healthy foods?

A: Let’s look at some of the more fun ways to go: Switch to water, much cheaper, and tap water is perfectly fine. Avoid those silly bottles. It’s very cheap in foster care to get a water dispenser and load fruit in the water to sweeten the water. Eat eggs: cheap, wonderful, straightforward. Canned tuna is fabulous, canned in water is better than canned in oil. Frozen vegetables are fine. Throw them in boiling water.

The grocery store is cheaper than a corner store; 7-11 is a complete rip-off. Shop the sales at grocery stores. The junk food is unhealthy and expensive. Ridiculous!

A good way to get protein cheaply is to buy whey protein and put it into smoothies—you can stir it; you don’t even need a blender. Other things you can do that are cheap: 100% whole wheat bread, fresh fruit and vegetables.

When you’re buying frozen or canned food, read the labels. Food should have less than 20 grams of simple sugar. Look for lots of fiber as well. If there are a million different preservatives or additives, any red dye no. 5, run away from that product. If the label is huge and full of long words, run!

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