Importance of Nutrition and Child’s Learning Ability
We live in a time when our children face tremendous academic pressure. Parents strive to help them achieve the best they can for their future. But now, nothing seems enough. Perfect 100% scores and a superlative academic track record has become the premise for admission in top colleges of the country. So much so, that even 95% of marks in board exams are merely average. Here, it is important that parents understand the importance of nutrition in defining a child’s cognitive potential.
Nowadays, your child has to deal with peer pressure and body image issues. Additionally, there is extreme pressure of scoring very high grades to get into the best of colleges. With the current state of cut-throat competition, it is no surprise that parents prioritize the academic performance of their children. Ensuring the right nutrition could be the difference whilst your child leaps towards a highly competitive academic finish line.
Unfortunately, many parents don’t realize that the quality of nutrition a child receives has profound effects on his or her cognitive capability, mental performance and overall capability to perform, succeed and achieve.
Social status of families and nutrition
A child belonging to the lower socio-economic status, not only has to struggle with a lack of educational opportunities, but also a lack of healthy nutrition. This child will most likely go through their formative years having a poor diet which lacks the most essential nutrients. This may lead to a lower academic performance throughout school, which in turn leads to fewer job opportunities resulting in a lower socio-economic status. When the same child grows up and starts a family, the cycle continues to the next generation.
On the other side of the socio-economic spectrum, a child belonging to an affluent urban family also deals with poor nutrition but in a very different way. More than one-third of such children and adolescents aged 6 to 19 years are overweight or obese. This is because these children are overfed, but remain undernourished.
Studies show that more than 90% of children in urban areas belonging to affluent families consume more than the recommended amounts of solid fats and added sugars. The consumption of fruits and vegetables in these children is also observed to be less than the recommended intake.
Nutrition Quality is the Key
Several studies conducted across the globe draw the conclusion between the quality of nutrition and the academic performance of a child. One of such studies linked higher consumption of sugary fast foods with increased mathematical difficulties.
Yet another study found that children who ate healthier foods with a low glycemic index (GI) had a better attention span, word recall and reaction time. On the other hand, children who consumed higher GI foods (which result in blood glucose spikes soon after consumption) fared much poorly in these studies.
Thus, even though children may appear to be well nourished, they may still have many underlying nutritional deficiencies. Some of these deficiencies impact the performance of these children in both academics and extra-curricular activities.
The Importance of Nutrition in Breakfast
Several studies looking into the relationship between breakfast consumption and academic performance in children conclude that “eating breakfast improves cognitive functions like memory recall.”
We summarised the results of 47 studies examining the association of breakfast consumption with nutritional adequacy (9 studies), body weight (16 studies), and academic performance (22 studies) in children and adolescents. Although the quality of breakfast was variable within and between studies, children eating breakfast on a consistent basis tended to have superior nutritional profiles than their breakfast-skipping peers – National Center for Biotechnology Information
Evidence suggests that breakfast consumption may improve cognitive function related to memory, test grades, and school attendance. Additionally, it was found that children who do not consume adequately during breakfast, may suffer from hunger pangs and stomach pains due to excessive acid.
Specific Foods and Academic Performance
Interestingly, studies have not just found a positive association with breakfast consumption but also between the quality of meals and academic performance.
A separate study carried out in Scotland investigated the consumption of sugary drinks, sweets, chocolates, pizza, savory snacks and hot dogs with learning abilities. The study found that children who had a higher consumption of these foods had increased difficulties in problem-solving as compared to children who had a more nutritious dietary intake.
As was mentioned above, sugar-rich foods and beverages with added sugar can affect the cognitive performance of your child. Suboptimal intake of foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, has also been associated with lower grades among students.
Physical Activity and Academic Performance
Physical activity is another very important factor that affects academic performance. Nowadays, many mothers feel that enrolling their children in extracurricular activities will take time away from their studies and result in poorer academic results.
On the contrary, studies have shown that students who are physically active perform better in school compared to children who are physically inactive. These kids not only have better grades but also better attendance and lesser absenteeism, better memory recall, and concentration during lessons as well as lesser disciplinary problems. Physically inactive children who gradually increased their activity showed improved memory and cognitive function.
So, ensuring ample amounts of physical activity will make your child sharper.
It’s not your child, inactivity may be severely impacting your own health well. Read our blog on how “sitting in the office has become equivalent to smoking” in modern times.
Healthy brain neurotransmitter activity results in improved cognition
Imagine the brain as a complex set of interconnected wires which constantly pass chemical messages through neurotransmitters (chemicals released by neurons that relay signals). These chemicals, in turn, determine the efficacy of brain functioning along with its cognitive abilities. Naturally, the efficiency of neurotransmitter functioning has a direct impact on the academic performance of a child.
The brain, in turn, needs amino acids and choline to maintain the ability to release neurotransmitters (serotonin, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine). Each of these chemicals plays a critical role in cognitive well-being, highlighting their nutritional importance in your child’s progress.
For example, serotonin regulates sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, mood, behavior, endocrine regulation, and depression. Likewise, acetylcholine and norepinephrine both play roles in controlling the central nervous system, heart contractions, and attention.
Below we have mentioned some important nutrients that can directly impact your child’s performance in the classroom.
The Importance of Food and Nutrition in Academic Performance
The role of micro-nutrients underlines the importance of nutrition for better academic performance. Studies show that children with deficiencies of micronutrients like Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, Folic acid, Iron, Zinc and Calcium, score lower grades and have higher absenteeism.
Our body utilizes protein to create neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers to the brain. Lack of protein, known as protein-energy malnutrition, may lead to poor student performance. This may cause children to become passive and withdrawn.
Our body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose (sugar), from which the brain gets energy. Carbohydrates also enable the brain to absorb tryptophan (an intermediary for production of serotonin). As noted above, serotonin plays a critical role in helping children utilize their brain capabilities.
Additionally, certain fats such as Omega-3 have a high degree of nutritional importance in keeping the brain well-nourished and staving off inflammation and feelings of depression. Omega-3 also helps in boosting the memory and mood with an increase in serotonin.
However, two particular nutrients that have been shown to have the strongest relation to school performance are Iron and Zinc.
Iron is an integral part of hemoglobin which is the oxygen-carrying molecule in the blood. The deficiency of iron is called anemia. Symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- fatigue or tiredness,
- slowed growth and development,
- poor appetite,
- abnormally rapid breathing,
- behavioral problems or disciplinary issues, and
- susceptibility to frequent infections.
All these individually and collectively can lead to increased absenteeism and thereby decreased academic performance. Iron deficiency directly affects the ability to undertake physical activity, which in turn, can further affect performance in school.
Our body’s immune system needs Zinc to work properly. Zinc also aids cell growth, wound healing as well as taste and smell perception. Symptoms of Zinc deficiency are depression and psychological disorders, impaired immunity, impaired growth, diarrhea, delayed sexual maturation, alopecia or abnormal hair growth, impaired appetite, altered cognitive functions and altered sense of smell and taste.
Again, just like in the case of iron, zinc deficiency leads to poorer performance in school. This can be due to the fact that children with zinc deficiency are more prone to falling sick, thereby missing classes. Their ability to memorize and learn also gets affected.
Children with deficiencies of micronutrients like vitamin A, B6, B12, Folic Acid, Iron, Zinc and Calcium, have shown to score lower grades and result in higher absenteeism.
So, how can parents ensure that they give their children the best advantage for improving academic performance?
Some of the suggestions are as follows:
- Give them a nutritious breakfast.
- Always have healthy snacks stocked up in your pantries so that kids eat the right foods throughout the day.
- “Low fat” labels are only there to fool you. Such products are usually loaded with sugar. Similarly, “natural” does not always mean whole grain or unrefined ingredients. Educate yourself about reading the labels and identifying what they mean.
- Encourage your children to be physically active, it’ll not only help them improve their academic performance but also help in building their overall personality.
- A good healthy balanced diet will ensure that your children do not suffer from any nutritional deficiencies.
Thus, academic performance, mental health, and healthy eating go hand in hand. The importance of nutrition and adequate physical exercise can’t be understated for your child’s optimal performance.