Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Link Between Nutrition and Learning: 20 Critical Facts

People are what they eat, as the reliable ol’ cliché touts. But there’s more than just a kernel of truth to it; probably an entire cob, in fact. Healthy diets actually mean the healthiest possible academic performance, with more than a trickle of scientific evidence backing up traditional sayings. The following examples represent a by-no-means comprehensive look at some of the connections between nutrition, education and economics.

Caffeine is not so helpful
Oh, caffeine is undeniably great — and often delicious! — stuff for staying awake when there’s studying or paper writing to do. Unfortunately, said alertness comes packaged with some not-so-great side effects. Teens who regularly indulge their caffeine cravings actually suffer from lower GPAs and higher depression, nervousness and anxiety rates than their not-so-jittery peers.

Breakfast does bolster memory
Not overall performance, however, so science doesn’t give it quite the same accolades as the general public. Regularly noshing on a nourishing breakfast really only boosts memory retention, which is obviously nothing to dismiss! But, as per usual, the research inflated after hitting public consciousness and everyone started touting it as the magical, whole wheat-laden conduit towards better grades and test scores.

Weight and performance don’t correlate
They kind of do and kind of don’t, actually: overweight third graders do score lower in math and reading than their average or underweight classmates, but that has nothing to do with intelligence or aptitude. Rather, mounting social persecution levied at anyone heavier than a certain body type instills them with confidence-busting anxiety issues that eventually reflect in their school work. So basically, the only way to reverse this trend is a complete societal overhaul where marginalizing the overweight elicits horror instead of high-fives.

Sufficient iron is a necessity
But not too much, as excessive amounts of the stuff causes an entirely different set of disconcerting health problems. Iron deficiencies — especially in younger children — can negatively impact the brain’s nerve and tissue development. Which, of course, might lead to cognitive issues and reduced education performance once he or she starts hitting school.

Oh, and iodine, too
Like iron, iodine deficiencies can also mean a decline in a young child’s overall cognitive functioning — which doesn’t exactly bode terrifically well for his or her academic performance. Kids under the age of 8 need about 90 µg (micrograms) of it daily, while infants up to a year old require 110 and 130 µg. Try and pack Muffy and Junior’s lunches and dinners with seafood or seaweed to make sure they get enough to get ahead.

Poor nutrition may mean learning disabilities in adulthood
In both zebra finches and humans, studies have shown that generally inadequate nutrition during the formative years can lead to serious learning disabilities later in life. Although there exists a couple ways to mildly compensate over time, piling on proper food intake still might not completely override the issue. Most of catching up’s positive effects, however, are largely physical — poor nutrition early might lower IQ and, as noted earlier, cognitive development permanently.

A collective healthy diet creates a healthy learning environment
When Central Alternative High School in Appleton, WI, replaced its standard issue carb- and fat-soaked school lunches with far fresher, healthier options, something pretty amazing happened. Truancy and altercations plummeted while grades skyrocketed, creating a safer, far more nurturing educational environment. While the switch didn’t really alter students’ intelligence or aptitude any, such an initiative deserves widespread implementation for its integral role in improving the overall classroom experience.

Get plenty of carbs
Specifically, those wholesome complex carbohydrates found in whole grains — avoid using this information as an excuse to gorge on those unhealthy processed sugars! Excessive carb consumption is never a good idea, of course, but regularly ingesting the recommended daily allowance means more streamlined, efficient cognitive activity. As the substance breaks down into glucose, the brain receives the energy needed to plow through the school day and soak up some lessons.

Low birth weight means a lower attention span
Usually a low birth rate is indicative of poor nutrition, if not malnutrition, and can lead to attention span issues alongside the expected cognitive development delays. In the U.S., one pound of additional birth weight apparently correlates to a 7% increase in lifetime earnings. Considering the relationship between nutrition, cognitive functioning and classroom performance, these findings aren’t exactly anything approaching surprising.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential
Found in fish, eggs, mussels, flax and some meats, Omega-3 fatty acids form an absolutely necessary cornerstone of the brain-friendly diet. They bolster the synapses, which in turn improve cognitive development, learning and memory — all core components of an effective, sustainable education. Individuals with fewer Omega-3s in their system suffer a higher risk of succumbing to mental illness and learning disabilities, though deficiency is by no means the origin or sole cause.

Rather than the three-meals-a-day plan to which American diners are acclimatized, several more small ones might actually prove more mentally beneficial. Aston University’s Michael Green points out that maintaining about 25 grams of glucose (approximately one banana) in the bloodstream is ideal for optimum brain functioning, and therefore learning. But try not to cram in too much of the stuff, either, as doing so can increase one’s risk of hyperglycemia and other high blood sugar issues.

Stick to foods low on the glycemic index
Not only does this healthy habit help prevent hyperglycemia, it also means a brain more eager to process and retain information. Because low-glycemic foods take longer to bodily break down, the essential organ receives a more regulated, steady stream of the stuff rather than huge bursts. This keeps its energy levels stable, so try and consume reasonable amounts of nuts, yogurt, meat, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, pasta and legumes.

Avoid sodas and moderate alcohol
Sodas and energy drinks lousy with sugar don’t do cognition any favors, as their glucose levels lead to a burst-and-crash rather than the nice, gentle flow of something healthier. A moderate amount of alcohol (one to two glasses, depending on tolerance and weight) at the end of the day can actually increase brain functioning and promote necessary relaxation — as can green tea, for all those non-drinkers out there! But no matter one’s decisions to consume or not consume, at least 80 ounces of water is necessary to dissuade stress hormones and promote improved overall health and wellness.
Protein-energy malnutrition is a serious educational roadblock in the developing world

Ernesto Pollitt’s UNESCO study posited that protein-energy malnutrition — as well as negligible or no resources — poses the developing world’s most common educational roadblock. Scientific links between poor nutrition and scholastic achievement come a dime a dozen these days, but this one pinpoints one of the more specific reasons. One which impacts millions of impoverished, marginalized children worldwide, meaning aid has to address protein and deficiencies as well as teacher training and resource compiling.

Schools with their own gardens enjoy improved overall nutrition
Engaging students in school or community gardens provides them with the most hands-on strategy for teaching them food production. A greater understanding of how fruits and vegetables grow has led to their increased consumption in participating California schools. This not only improved their performance, but inspired them to keep a healthy diet far beyond just the classroom.

Hunger and behavior issues correlate
No matter the setting, if a kid is starving, his or her thoughts will focus on feeding rather than the tasks at hand. Even the rigorously intelligent and eager with high aptitude will display from poor grades and behavior issues when suffering from hunger or malnutrition. With 12.4 million American children hailing from "food insecure" households, that means a disconcerting number of distracted, at-risk students.

Hunger increases the dropout rate
Everywhere in the world, both developed and developing nations see dropout rates as family income and food accessibility plummet. This unfortunate phenomenon stems from the same factors linking hunger and learning and/or behavioral issues. Motivations behind jettisoning school at any level vary from individual to individual, but performance anxiety and helping out an impoverished family are tragically common.

Anemia contributes to poor performance
"Well duh," some will inevitably say. "Iron deficiency was already covered earlier." And that’s true, but in some parts of rural China and elsewhere, parasitic worms can also trigger the condition. When students received effective treatments for the medical problems, their schools enjoyed a 25% increase in attendance. In addition, healthy kids participated more frequently in class discussions than their suffering peers.

Get plenty of antioxidants
Antioxidants essentially swab out free radicals in the brain and body that could cause different diseases and conditions. Considering the essential organ’s susceptibility to oxidation, a diet rich in the harmful phenomenon’s sworn nemesis will certainly help improve academic (and general) performance. Partake of fresh fruits and vegetables, teas, coffees, wines, eggs and other antioxidant-rich foods and drinks for a happier, healthier school experience.

Caffeine is helpful
Except when it isn’t. Excessive consumption, particularly over the long term, and the addition of sugar both pose quite a threat to one’s calm, stability and concentration. But, like alcohol, responsible intake might actually help nurture memory retention skills. Small amounts of coffee without any of the usual accoutrements provide antioxidants in addition to a brain boost.

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Story by Tim Handorf

1 comment:

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