Many people have heard the phrase, “You are what you eat,” meaning a person’s performance in day-to-day life is directly related to what he eats. If a person eats a balanced diet, his performance will be of a higher quality than someone who eats junk food and processed food. As an example, a person would not put canola oil into his car to make that vehicle run, and neither should he put poor-quality food into his own, far more precious vehicle of his body.
The same holds true for children.
As a teacher, I have the privilege of seeing seventeen young students grow and learn every weekday in my classroom. And, because I see how they perform academically and socially every day, I also notice that when a student is not performing well, lagging behind, having lack of attention, or just plain zoning out, it usually is directly related to what they have (or have not) been eating.
Many studies also support what I have seen first-hand in my classroom. Timi Gustafson, RD, in his article “Nutrition Can Greatly Affect Your Child’s Learning Ability” states,“The nutritional quality of our diet affects our well being throughout our lives, but it has an even greater impact on children whose bodies and minds are still growing. Nutritional deficiencies can seriously damage a child’s neural development, possibly leading to lower IQ and learning disabilities.”1
Gustafson’s statement rings true, as diet is vital to young, growing bodies of children. The importance of good nutrition is seen in several areas. The first is the importance of a good breakfast.
Breakfast literally means “break the fast.” When a person’s body has been fasting for a period of time (aka sleeping overnight), the body has a need to replenish energy. Lindsay Boyers in “Benefits of Eating Breakfast for Students” writes, “Breakfast is often described as the most important meal of the day, and rightfully so– it not only provides important daily nutrients such as protein, fiber, calcium and carbohydrates, but it also helps improve school performance, allowing students to do better on tests, according to the Food and Nutrition Service.”2 Having your child daily eat breakfast, or at least a breakfast-type snack at morning recess, can greatly help that young person’s concentration and overall energy.
However, not all breakfasts are created equal. Boyers also says, “While eating any breakfast is better than skipping breakfast altogether, some choices are better than others. Carbohydrate-only breakfasts, such as bagels and toast, can give energy for one to two hours, while complete breakfasts that contain a balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates can keep blood sugar levels steady for hours, according to MealsMatter.org. Try some toast with peanut butter and a piece of fruit or cereal with milk and glass of 100 percent fruit juice. If you have time, make an omelet with cheese, broccoli and some turkey bacon.”3
While having a child eat a nutrient-dense breakfast is the first step in helping him lead a healthier life with a better academic level, another area which is important is the necessity of packing healthy snacks and lunches. Gustafson writes, Some scientists see a direct link between high saturated fat intake and mental performance. Tests have shown that many items popular in school cafeterias such as hamburgers, chicken nuggets, pizza and French fries actually lower students’ ability to stay awake and concentrate. A dramatic drop in energy due to digestion of heavy foods leaves kids feeling lethargic, irritable and unable to focus.” 4
Many students fail to live up to their academic potential simply because they are not putting the appropriate “fuel” into their body. If a student is eating processed and junk food on a regular basis, those poor-eating habits will manifest themselves in poor concentration, poor health, poor grades, and, occasionally, hyperactivity. In my own classroom I can attest to the fact that if a student is a poor eater, his or her performance will also be poor.
Also, if a student is not eating at all (not bringing any lunch or snacks) he is literally causing his body to starve, which will affect his performance, attitude, and overall state of well being and happiness. If a student is not eating complex carbohydrates (whole grains, vegetables, and fruit) and appropriate levels of protein (milk, yogurt, fish, chicken, lean meat, eggs, etc.), he will not have energy to accomplish his day successfully and may, in the long run, have health issues.
Besides providing students with breakfast and healthy options for snacks and lunch, one other area that parents need to be aware of is limiting the junk food that their chilrdren have access to at school and at home. Feeding your child food such as sugary cereals, pizza, Lunchables, chips, and soda, is detrimental. Carol Lloyd in her article, “Food for Thought: Can Kids Eat Their Way to Better Grades?” writes, “Tobin’s own research — unpublished but presented at the 2009 conference of the American Educational Research Association — looked at the food consumption surveys of 5,500 fifth-graders from a national longitudinal survey by the Department of Education. Tobin found that children who ate fast food three or more times per week performed lower on standardized tests in reading and math.
How much lower? ‘On a 1-to-100 scale, it would mean about 17 points,’ says Tobin. In other words, the difference between a 90 and a 73.”5 People, especially young children and teenagers, react according to what they put into their body. This includes not only food, but sugary and caffeine-laden drinks.
How can you as a parent help your child develop good eating habits? One good way to stimulate good habits is to utilize them yourself. Gustafson writes, “Eating habits develop early. Most children acquire them from their parents and older siblings. Kids don’t develop food preferences on their own, not even for candy. They learn what to like or dislike by observing others. What you as the parent buy and bring in the house is what they will have access to. How you treat your own body in terms of diet, exercise and lifestyle choices will influence their own behavior.”6 Instead of using the excuse that your child is a picky eater, try to not be a picker eater yourself, and keep introducing new, healthy alternatives to the processed, additive-laden choices that many stores are stocked with.
Good nutrition is vital to the performance and overall well-being of your student, and to you as a parent as well. So, does your student eat a good breakfast (or at least morning snack) every day? Does he have a lunch, and is that lunch of good quality that will give him the appropriate fuel he needs for the day? Is his processed and junk food input limited? For, as the famous quotation says, “You are what you eat.” With this in mind, what quality of “are” do you want for your child?
by Brittney Welch
Lindsay Boyers, “Benefits of Eating Breakfast for Students,” http://healthyeating.sfgate.com, (February 25, 2014).
Timi Gustafson, RD, “Nutrition Can Greatly Affect Your Child’s Learning Ability,”http://blog.seattlepi.com, (February 25, 2014).
Carol Lloyd, “Food for Thought: Can Kids Eat Their Way to Better Grades?”,http://www.greatschools.org, (February 25, 2014).
For some creative, heathy food ideas, check out http://www.superhealthykids.com.