How nutrition affects children’s learning is a question that more and more parents are asking. As a child, I spent endless hours at the dinner table. Not amiably chatting away, but on my own until I had finished my meal; or at least eaten my greens. On most occasions however, that cabbage was never going to be eaten! It found its way tucked out of sight under the mashed potato, which didn’t have to be eaten. I was confident at the time that I had pulled it off, but looking back, my parents were probably just exasperated and gave up after me sitting there for what seemed like a life time.
The reasons behind parents wanting or insisting that their children eats their greens, is of course, a valid one. And maybe never more so than now, as scientists learn more and more about the brain and the link between brain function, nutrition and learning.
The way our children’s brains function and their ability to focus, remember and learn, can be significantly affected by what they eat. When it comes to their cognitive abilities, ability to focus, concentrate and remember, the food they eat matters.
A wide range of studies show how nutrition affects children’s learning through having an impact on their thinking skills, health and behaviour. For example, studies have shown that a diet high in saturated fats can adversely impact leaning and memory; while nutritional deficiency early on can affect the cognitive ability of school age children.
How nutrition affects children’s learning
Some studies have suggested that nutrition affects children’s learning and has an impact on their IQ. A study by M. Jukes et al (Nutrition and Education), noted the following about a lack of iodine in the diet:
An estimated 1.6 billion people worldwide are iodine
deficient. Iodine deficiency was associated with an
average 13.5 point reduction in IQ for a population. Deficiency
in school children leads to reduced cognitive function…
Not getting enough nutrients can also cause a lack of energy and focus. We’ve probably all been familiar with the energy crash that comes when we indulge in too many treats or comfort foods. And this of course will be no different for our children. When this type of eating becomes something that isn’t a treat however, and forms a regular part of a child’s diet, the learning consequences can be damaging.
Studies carried out by the Society for Neuroscience, revealed that a diet hight in saturated fats impair learning and memory. They explain that the link between saturated fats and brain power is the effect of glucose and sugar. Glucose comes from carbohydrates and is essential for providing us with energy. Foods that are too high in glucose however, causes the body’s energy levels to drop.
When we take in glucose, the body releases insulin which will process the food we’re eating. If we have a healthy meal, the glucose levels will rise slightly and our bodies will feel energised. But if we’re having a high glucose diet, we end up with a big drop in energy levels. This happens because the glucose is so high that the body starts to shut down so it can process all of the food.
So we can imagine how a child may feel after a snack or lunch high in saturated fats on a regular basis. The significant drop in energy, (which may also lead to a feeling of lethargy and irritability), can lead to a lack of focus and being able to perform well mentally. When they feel this drop in energy levels, it’s also difficult to expect them to concentrate and focus in a way that will maximise their learning.
Other studies have also noted how nutrition affects children’s learning in terms of performance in standardised tests. A study by Florence et al (2008), found that children in the 5th grade that had poor nutritional diets, did worse on standardised literacy assessment tests. Another study showed that 5th grade students that ate more fast food did worse on maths and reading tests (Li, O’Connell, 2012).
Not surprisingly, a diet lacking in the right amount of nutrients can also affect a child’s school performance indirectly through increased absences from school. It can make children more vulnerable to minor illnesses, meaning time off from school (Brown et al, 2008).
A worrying trend in today’s world is the increasing number of children who are obese. In England for example (2007), around 16% of children from 2-15 were obese and 14% being overweight. And it’s not just a problem for the developed world. Dr. L. Wenk (2011), noted that in a study of 1229 European, Polynesian and Asian children aged between 5-11, it was Asian children who were more likely to have excess body fat.
The study found that there were three lifestyle risk factors related to the likelihood of a child becoming obese. These were: insufficient physical exercise, not having breakfast and not getting enough sleep on school days.
I expect many of us were brought up being told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It’s something I’ve stuck to and passed down to our daughter. But what does the research say?
Research tells us that it is more beneficial to have breakfast than not, but the effect is more so with children who are already malnourished in some way (Dr. Wenk). It would seem too that what a child eats for breakfast can have a positive effect on their cognitive functioning and effect on how their brain grows.
Other studies have shown that children who are provided with breakfast at school, perform better than those who don’t.
Many studies have highlighted a link between diet and behaviour. C. Hannaford suggests that poor nutrition increases the stress on our physical and psychological systems which can lead to poor behaviour. She says that without sufficient water, good fats, amino acids and complex carbohydrates and sugars, the frontal lobes of our brains can’t function properly. This includes not being able to control our own behaviours and think before acting.
This of course, will have an indirect effect on a child’s learning. When their learning is distracted by poor behaviour, they are unable to fully access what is being taught.
What do children need?
Like adults, children need a balanced diet. Included in this will be:
Protein, Unsaturated fats, complex carbohydrates, natural sugars and trace elements.
To function at its best, the brain needs a variety of nutrients. With regard to learning, the following nutrients are needed for memory, focus and to regulate our emotions (Dr. D Just – Centre for Behavioural Economics in Child Nutrition).
Sufficient Complex Carbohydrates
An insufficient amount of complex carbohydrates can lead to a low blood sugar level. This can affect the part of the brain called the hippocampus which plays an important role in learning.
Children’s bodies need lots of protein for their growth. Proteins are synthesised into chemicals called, dopamine and norepinephrine. These chemicals are essential for memory, thinking and quick reaction time.
Nutrients to include in your child’s diet
In a world where we seem forever on the go with our children, it’s not always easy making the time to cook and ensure that out children are getting all the nutrients they need. But the evidence is clear on how nutrition affects children’s learning. And by being informed we can make the right decisions about their diets.
Below is a table of some top foods by dietician J. Koo. It highlights the key nutrients, showing how nutrition affects children’s learning.
The way nutrition affects children’s learning is certainly worth being informed about. As parents, I believe we are in that privileged position to make a difference. While our children are young, we have that golden opportunity, that golden window, to make a positive difference to their learning and eventual success in the world. And one way of doing that is through their diet. I can’t say it’s an easy one all the time, but I’d definitely say it’s worth it.
We are our children’s role models and young children love to do what mum and dad do. I think we can really capitalise on this with eating. Seeing us eat healthily will inspire them to do the same. They will of course leave that space of being completely influenced by us and start to be influenced by their peers in terms of eating (and other things!). My belief (my hope!), is that by giving them that solid foundation, with basic knowledge of what healthy eating is and why it’s important, they may be less likely to veer off the healthy eating road too far. Time of course, will tell!
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Over to you…
What are your thoughts on this? Is it an area that you breeze through or one that causes stress? Have you found a great way of keeping on top or meals etc? Let us know in the comments below.