by Dr. Amy Moore
Research and reports about the importance of nutrition for our health and the health of our children are ubiquitous. Nearly every day, we hear about calorie intake, balanced meals, and key vitamins and minerals. And the latest diet trends permeate social media. From keto to Paleo to intermittent fasting, there’s always something new to consider before we eat that next bite! But how often do we think about food choices when it comes to our children’s ability to learn and perform in school? Here are three common food mistakes that impact the function of the developing brain along with tips for minimizing them:
Food Mistake #1: The Sugar Binge
You’ve no doubt read that excessive sugar intake is directly correlated with childhood obesity and the development of type 2 diabetes. But what about the impact of excess sugar on a child’s brain? Many teachers dread Halloween and Valentine’s Day classroom parties at school. They lament over the hyperactive chaos that ensues following games, crafts, music, and the ingestion of pounds (seriously, pounds) of candy, cupcakes, cookies, and soft drinks. But it might surprise you to learn the sugar isn’t causing all that hyperactivity. It’s just the excitement about the celebration (and maybe a little caffeine).
Sugar actually has a sedating effect. Consuming excess sugar inhibits the production of the hormone orexin, which stimulates the brain into feeling awake. Ironically, even though sugar creates sleepiness, it also inhibits rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the type of sleep we need to feel rejuvenated in the morning.
So, the day after Valentine’s Day or Halloween is when we see the influence of all that sugar. The day after a sugar binge looks like the mind-numbing aftermath of being hit with a tranquillizer dart. A child cannot participate meaningfully in learning while coming off a sugar-induced sleepless night. The brain simply can’t manage to concentrate or focus in that condition.
How can we minimize this food mistake? Combining protein-rich foods with sugary foods helps prevent the problems with reduced orexin production. Include a meat and cheese tray alongside the cupcakes and encourage kids to eat both!
Food Mistake #2: Skipping Breakfast
I get it. Mornings with kids are rough. You wake them up six times, send them back to their closet for a re-do of that hideous outfit, sign a permission slip that was due the day before, find a missing backpack, let the dog out and back in, find a missing gym shoe, and help with last-minute math homework, all before the bus arrives. And all while getting yourself dressed and ready for the day! It’s easy to see how breakfast can be too time-consuming for the morning routine.
However, research has shown time and time again that breakfast is essential for attention, memory, and executive functions—all key skills that underlie the ability to think and learn. Science also tells us that children who eat breakfast not only focus better in the classroom, they also have higher grades and standardized achievement test scores than children who skip breakfast. (Even after controlling for differences in socioeconomic status.)
Children’s brains need glucose for energy, but they metabolize it twice as fast as adults. What isn’t used up during waking hours is depleted overnight. This means children need a source of glucose first thing in the morning if their brains are going to function properly at school.
How can we minimize this food mistake? Provide well-rounded breakfast options for your children. A combination of protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates is ideal for maximizing the brain’s potential at school. It requires a little planning and a few extra minutes, but the rewards are much bigger than the effort it takes us.
Food Mistake #3: Not Drinking Enough Water
Water sounds boring to many kids. Instead of arguing with them, it’s sometimes easier to hand them a juice box on the way out the door. But water is essential for brain function. The brain depends on water to provide energy to brain cells which need twice as much energy as any other cells in the body. Without it, the brain cannot produce neurotransmitters, the chemicals responsible for nerve signaling and communication. Therefore, when kids don’t drink enough water, basic cognitive functions like attention, memory, and reasoning ability are compromised. These skills are required for performing math, learning to read, and acquiring new information.
You may be wondering if drinking other beverages is adequate for kids, especially for those who don’t like plain water. The answer? Yes…and no. Fluid intake is the goal, but research has shown that kids who drink less water also tend to drink less milk and more sugar-sweetened beverages. So, it’s important to be choosy when choosing those fluids.
How can we minimize this food mistake? Encourage kids to drink plain water rather than sports drinks and soft drinks. Save those for special occasions. Allow them to choose their own water bottles for school and activities outside the home. Water bottles come in a variety of colors with fun patterns and favorite characters that can help entice younger children to drink. Older children may benefit from choices for more mature taste buds, such as unsweetened, but flavored sparkling water.
The connection between nutrition and learning is firmly grounded in science. Research on brain development and learning continues to confirm the downsides of consuming excess sugar, skipping breakfast, and not drinking enough water. A few adjustments to our daily routines and refrigerator shelves can make a big difference in school performance for kids of all ages.
Dr. Amy Moore is a cognitive psychologist in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the headquarters of LearningRx, the largest network of brain training centers in the world. She specializes in cognition and learning in neurodevelopmental disorders, brain injury, learning disabilities, and age-related cognitive decline. She is also editor-in-chief of Modern Brain Journal, a board-certified Christian counselor, and co-host of the podcast Brainy Moms. Learn more about her work at www.LearningRx.com