Good nutrition is the foundation for maintaining optimal health. We all know this…we may even try to eat right, but it’s often easier said than done in an age where processed convenience foods are readily available and hold such appeal, especially for busy working families. For so many of us, it’s entirely too easy to fix macaroni and cheese from a box and cut up a hot dog and call it lunch for a child, especially when you have something else—like an article deadline that is days past due—that you really need to be doing. But did you ever stop to consider the cumulative effect those decisions might have on your child’s learning?
Many studies have shown a clear link between nutritional quality and school performance in children—and adults. Some studies have also shown that improved nutrition and certain dietary changes can markedly improve symptoms in children diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Clearly, there is a link between nutrition and learning outcomes, and possibly also between nutrition and behavior. Let’s explore ways that we can help our children learn and behave better through better nutriton.
The negative effects of hunger on a child’s academic performance and behavior have been reported in numerous publications, including the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Pediatrics, and the American Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. This is often tied to socioeconomic status, because often, healthier, fresh foods may not be readily available to purchase in poorer urban areas, and sometimes food shopping is done at the local convenience store or gas station.
While federal assistance is available to cover or offset the costs of school meals for low-income families, there are other programs in place to assist families in bridging the gap. The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma’s Food for Kids Backpack Program provides children with backpacks filled with non-perishable, kid-friendly foods on weekends and school holidays.
A Matter of Choice
Hunger isn’t always a socioeconomic issue, of course. Even though healthy food was readily available in my home, I distinctly remember opting out of breakfast altogether starting in middle school, instead favoring the extra 15–20 minutes sleep I was afforded by doing so. Of course, I know now that I was doing myself a disservice, as studies show students who eat breakfast tend to be better able to focus and have higher academic scores, particularly in math, than those who don’t. (I can tell you, that stint in summer school repeating Algebra II was NOT a good time.) Children who miss meals or are chronically hungry are also more likely to repeat a grade, and have a higher rate of absenteeism and more tardies than those who eat three meals a day.
Just filling up a student’s belly with whatever is nearby is not enough to help him focus. In fact, if those bellies are being filled with the wrong things, they can have the opposite effect. Eating too many simple carbohydrates can cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels that is followed by a crash that will make you sleepy. Ever had a big piece of birthday cake right after lunch? It never fails… by 3:00pm on any co-worker’s birthday, I am fighting to stay awake.
There have also been recent studies showing that students with low-protein diets had lower achievement scores than those with a protein-rich diet. In addition, iron deficiency can lead to shortened attention span, fatigue, irritability and difficulty with concentration, all of which negatively affect student achievement.
There are two types of dietary iron. Heme iron comes from animal products that once contained hemoglobin, such as red meats, fish and poultry. These are the best-absorbed types of iron, and are excellent sources of protein as well. Non-heme iron can be found in foods such as spinach, broccoli, tofu, legumes and seeds. On the flip side, adding omega-3 fatty acids to a child’s diet may help to improve cognitive function. These can be found in many cold water fish and certain foods such as flaxseeds and avocadoes, and can also be given as a supplement.
So what’s the best way to eat to promote learning and school success? Jamie Taylor is a Registered Dietitian and Clinical Nutrition Specialist with a decade of experience, as well as mom to two elementary-age daughters. To avoid falling into what she calls the fast-food trap on a regular basis, she advises “meal-planning, including eating meals and snacks at regular times. When grocery shopping, stock up on a variety of healthy foods and snack options. Give older school-age kids choices, and avoid being overly restrictive. Plan dinners a week at a time and stick to a regular schedule. Providing meals and snacks at regular times promotes stable blood sugars and helps children tune into their own hunger and fullness cues.”
An ideal breakfast for a school-aged child might include an egg, a piece of whole-grain toast with peanut butter, a piece of fruit and a glass of low-fat milk or water. The protein and fiber content will help keep your child satisfied until lunch time. “Optimal cognitive function pertains to stable glucose levels, as glucose is the brain’s preferred fuel source. The more complex carbohydrates and fiber from sources such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, the better. Limiting simple sugars helps as well,” says Taylor.
She cautions against forbidding certain foods altogether, such as fast food, sugary drinks and cereals. Most experts agree that occasionally partaking in these types of refined foods is harmless, as long as they don’t make up the majority of any child’s—or adult’s—diet. “We have to be careful to avoid too much deprivation, as it can cause an increase in desire for ‘forbidden’ foods. Striking a balance between offering healthy yet appetizing food on tight budgets is an ongoing challenge in institutional food management,” says Taylor.
Indeed, while school lunches have come a long way in the past decade, many schools continue to offer fast-food style pizzas and French fries alongside the healthier options, especially in middle and high schools. Still, there are a few standouts. One high school in Appleton, Wisconsin replaced their regular poor-quality school lunches with healthy fresh foods at lunch with water as the main beverage. The changes reportedly resulted in improved behavior from the students and fewer absences.
The important thing is to teach your kids by example. Let them get involved in grocery shopping and food preparation. Keeping them involved in the process will help them to make better choices at school. There is always the option to send lunch to school with your child—hearty soups, salads, fruits and sandwiches can be easily packed in insulated containers to stay hot or cold.
While children who are undernourished have trouble focusing and tend to be less successful in school, the same is true of children who are overweight and obese. While at first glance, these issues appear to be at odds, research shows that obesity and hunger can and often do co-exist, particularly in low-income families.
Those without sufficient resources to buy nutritionally adequate food are often overweight, as purchasing decisions are driven by the need to maximize the number of calories they can buy to feed family members and stave off hunger. With poor-quality meals, students are left with the same problem of blood sugar instability that those who are undernourished are facing. With childhood obesity rates on the rise across the country, it’s important to stop and ask how many of these children are actually in the same boat—at least academically—as the kids who are hungry?
Remember, ensuring your family is eating healthy doesn’t only lead to academic achievement and potentially successful careers, but also to a lifetime of good health!
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and single mom to two girls. An Edmond resident, she graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma and is an HR manager in the medical field.