Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: The impact of nutrition on learning

“At my daughter’s recent birthday party, the girls were making Renaissance themed masks until we served chocolate cake. Within minutes the scene had regressed 1,700 odd years to a Roman festival of half-naked, sugar-smeared party girls, intent on raising Hades from the underworld with their screams. Parents in attendance marveled at the classic sugar rush.” Carol Lloyd,

What was really happening in those brains? And what does science tell us about food’s relationship to brain health, cognition and school performance? When a teen arrives to their first class of the day, there is a strong likelihood that he/she will not have eaten breakfast. That choice, over the course of the school day and school year, will likely have an impact not only on their academic progress and cognitive development, but their health in later life.

Anyone who has teenagers knows that food is often an issue — either too much, too little, or just the wrong choices. In a report published by the Centers for Disease Control, healthy students are better learners, and unhealthy eating is associated with poor grades, low scores and lower chances of educational success. In addition, unhealthy eating was a well-established link to obesity, diabetes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and hyper-distractibility.

I asked some teens in my classes why so many teens find junk food so appealing. Here are some responses:

▪ We are too tired in the morning to think about eating and there is definitely no time to make lunch. My schedule is insane and food is the last thing I think about until I’m hungry.

▪ Stress eating. When I am stressed, I reach for foods that feel good. Like ice cream or cookies. Carrot sticks may be better for me but sugar makes me feel better.

▪ School food is horrible. My parents think I am eating school lunch, but I’d rather have a bag of chips than eat the food from the cafeteria — it is not even food.

▪ Fast food/vending machine food tastes good and is affordable. We don’t have a lot of money and the food tastes good. It is that salty and sweet combination.

▪ Most teens learn about the importance of health in school but they are not yet ready to embrace responsibility and in fact not concerned about it. We know what is important to eat, and the effects of too much sugar and fat, but we are invincible, so it just isnt relevant to us right now.

▪ Teenagers can rebel. The more you push the issue, the more resistant I will be. I know I need to eat more veggies.

Nutrition and Brain Function

The impact of nutrition on normal brain function can be demonstrated by the performance of neurotransmitter activity (chemical messengers that carry information from brain cell to brain cell). The brain, like many other vital organs, is affected by nutritional intake. Amino acids found in proteins, and essential nutrients like choline are responsible for the normal production and use of neurotransmitters in the brain (serotonin, acetylcholine, dopamine, and norepinephrine). We obtain these substances in the food we eat, so it is no surprise that what we choose to eat directly influences how our brain functions.

What Teens Need and What It Does

There are five vital components for proper brain development and function and they are all found in food.

▪ Proteins (meat, fish, milk, cheese) are used to make most neurotransmitting substances. Lack of protein causes fatigue and withdrawal and has been associated with poor school performance.

▪ Calories are the measure of the amount of energy delivered by food. Teenager bodies require more calories than any other stage of life. On average, boys require about 2800 calories/day; and girls, 2200 calories/day until the period of rapid growth ends. Because girls eat fewer calories/day than boys, they are more likely to be deficient in vitamins and minerals.

▪ Carbohydrates, such as grains, fruits, and vegetables, are used to produce the body and brain’s main fuel. Complex carbs, such as green vegetables, whole grain foods (oatmeal, pasta, and bread), starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and pumpkin) provide sustained energy along with fiber and assorted nutrients. Many nutritionists suggest that complex carbs make up 50-60% of a teens caloric intact. Simple carbs offer only sweetness and short bursts of energy.

▪ Fat makes up more than 60% of the brain and assists the body in absorbing fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). Omega-3 fatty acids (fish and nuts) are especially important to brain function Fat should not make up no more than 30% of the diet.

▪ Vitamins (A, C, E, and B complex) and minerals (magnesium, folic acid, potassium, manganese, and fiber ) are also essential for brain function. “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010,” says that since most teens don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables each day, they miss out on these essential vitamins and minerals. Many teen girls do not meet their daily calcium needs, which might increase their risk of poor bone health later in life.

With all this in mind, parents need to evaluate their teen’s diet and do their best to help them get the suggested number of calories from nutritious food. Here are some suggestions:

▪ Ensure that your child eats a healthy breakfast every day. Get up a few minutes early and make breakfast for your kids. Starting school with a good breakfast can eliminate the stomach pains, headache and fatigue associated with hunger. When the body does not get what it needs to function, the nutritional demands for learning take a back seat to demands for the body’s survival.

▪ Help your child eat better by making small changes to their usual diet. Instead of sugary drinks with meals, offer low-fat milk, water or seltzer flavored with orange or lemon slices. Keep healthy snacks readily available — fresh fruit, cut-up veggies, nuts and whole-grain crackers — to make it easy for your teen to eat healthy in between meals. And dump those power drinks as a replacement for water — they are nothing more than salted sugar water.

▪ Try to eat together. Families that eat together have children with better eating habits, better grades and more happiness. Besides, if your teen sees you making good food choices, he might too.

▪ Look at your family’s schedule. Despite all our technological advances, our lives are hectic and kids seem to be doing everything at the last minute. On any given morning in my own home, my high school children are frantically running around getting ready for school. If I didn’t put an egg and toast in front of them, they would never eat.

▪ Start reading food labels. If your family eats a lot of packaged and processed foods, you may be surprised to see how much fat, and sugar and sodium, is in the foods you eat every day.

As a gun proponent would say, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” So is it the food itself that is the problem or how we eat it? What role does the disparity in socio-economics play? What are the lifestyle patterns and choices we have adopted as a society?

With food, fast is not always better.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.