I don’t think that there is anything more important than a child’s ability to learn. That is why we focus so much on helping kids bodies function better so they can be successful in every area of life, especially school. To be successful in school it requires good executive function skills. Those skills would consist of attention, impulse control, verbal and non-verbal skills, working memory, etc.
I am going to cover an interesting meta analysis that I came across that gives guidance on what a child needs nutritionally to have good brain development and good cognitive skills! What most parents don’t realize is that the fuel you give a child is extremely important for how well they focus, their memory, word recall, and about every aspect of learning. This blog will breakdown the research on this topic and give you a guideline on what to feed your child to fuel learning!
Below is the title of the article if you would like to read the full article yourself if can be found here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-nutrition/article/effect-of-healthy-dietary-consumption-on-executive-cognitive-functioning-in-children-and-adolescents-a-systematic-review/5B4903E20D46E00D57E29FD7A6BEDB41/core-reader
This study looked at the affects of the sugar content in foods (glycemic index and glycemic load), the affects of different micro and macro nutrients, and their effect on cognitive abilities.
The first aspect we are going to discuss is glycemic index and load! The glycemic index of a food is the amount of sugar or carbohydrates in a food. The higher the amount of sugar in a food the greater spikes in a child’s blood sugar after eating it. When you have large spikes in blood sugar you get a lot of energy quickly, but that energy is followed by large drops in blood sugar. When kids get large drops in blood sugar it results in a child being “Hangry”.
I am sure about every parent has experienced this period of fatigue, emotional instability, and lack of focus. This is largely due to eating foods that are designed to give quick boosts of energy and not long term sustained energy. high glycemic index foods are breads, pastas, sugary breakfast cereals, many processed foods, etc. The more a child consumes these foods the larger ups and downs they will have in energy throughout the day. This also means a child will have larger ups and downs in their attention, emotional regulation, and cognitive skills. This is the last thing you want when trying to teach a child or help them with behaviors.
Foods that are lower in glycemic index like vegetables release sugars to the body slower and allow for sustained energy throughout the day with not as large of ups and downs. Foods that are low in glycemic index are most fruits, vegetables (excluding potatoes), and whole grains like oats. This means when kids eat these foods they get energy more spread out throughout the day resulting in less ups and downs throughout the day. This results in better long term attention, behaviors, and overall better cognitive skills.
What these studies consistently show is that when kids consume foods that are high on the glycemic index their cognitive performance throughout the day was lower. This resulted in attention issues, memory issues, impulse control, and overall lower cognitive function. The children that consumed higher amounts of low glycemic foods had overall better cognitive performance throughout the day!
This is particularly important for parents to know because the breakfast that you serve your child in the morning can either make or break their day of learning! A good rule of thumb for improving cognitive performance with breakfast is to serve them foods that are low in sugar content, and that have higher fat content from healthy plant based sources like avocados and nuts! My go to would be an organic whole grain cereal that is gluten free, with macadamia milk. You can also add nuts to this to give you more good fats! In addition you can also put an avocado on the side to increased the good fat content and give more omega 3’s. This breakfast tastes amazing and would be filled with foods low on the glycemic index. The reason for macadamia milk is that it has the consistency of 1% milk, but it has almost no sugar in it. Where milk has a large amount of sugar added to it in most cases!
PUFA’s stand for polyunsaturated fatty acids. These fatty acids are primarily from healthy plant based sources (olive oils, avocado oils, coconut oils, nuts and seeds). These studies show that an increase in these types of oils improve cognitive function. This is largely due to the high quantities of omega 3 oils and omega 9 oils. These oils are anti-inflammatory and needed for your brain to function well. These studies also showed that higher amounts of omega 6 oils were detrimental to cognitive function. Omega 6 oils are found in vegetables oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, fried foods, and most processed foods. These oils are very hard to extract and require large amounts of processing to do so. This results in them being highly inflammatory in the brain and body! Staying away from these oils and foods is vital for good function.
In these studies they compared low glycemic index grains to high sugar cereals for breakfast, and also healthy diet compared to junk foods. Kids that were lower glycemic index and had less junk food performed better in attention, working memory, non-verbal reasoning, verbal learning, and impulse control.
Something that I found interesting is that the increased consumption of red and processed meats showed a decrease in cognitive functions. In the United States we consume roughly 3 times as much red meat as other countries. It is interesting to think that this increased consumption is actually decreasing our kids cognitive and school performances.
The study calls for an increase in fish consumption instead of a red meat diet. It would be interesting to see the affects of organic grass fed beef vs normal produced beef to see if this had any change, but in the mean time to improve your child’s cognitive performance it is calling for a diet similar to a pesco vegetarian diet. This means a diet that is high in vegetables and fish.
I think the most important part of this entire article is what is highlighted in blue. By eating vegetables, healthy fats from plant based sources and fish, and getting rid of high sugar foods it allows your brain and nervous system to develop well. The micronutrients from plants and high quality fats allows you to produce neurotransmitters effectively, and build your myelin sheath (this is what allows neurons to work quickly and transmit signals effectively). These are needed to have a healthy brain and body.
3 things to do to help your child function better in school according to this study:
- Stop feeding them sugar filled cereals in the morning and sugar filled foods during the day.
- Replace them with low glycemic vegetables, high fat plant sources, and fish.
- Stay away from red meats, processed meats, and processed carbohydrates.
The sad thing is all of the foods that are bad for kids cognitive abilities are all part of the standard american diet! Changing your child’s diet consistently and for a long period of time will give them a better future and make them smarter!
If anyone else has read any good research on this topic please share!