Link Between Good Nutrition & Learning for Children

Good nutrition promotes not only physical growth and health, but also cognitive development, helping children learn from infancy through adolescence and beyond.

Cognitive development includes remembering, problem solving and decision-making. Children perform their intellectual best when they have the winning combination of healthy, balanced meals and daily physical activity.

First Years

Proper nutrition begins in the mother’s womb. The foods the mother eats helps the baby develop physically and mentally. An undernourished baby may suffer from irreversible brain damage, including learning disabilities and mental retardation. Iron deficiency in infancy may also cause permanent brain damage and learning and behavior problems. Drinking too much cow’s milk puts toddlers at risk for iron deficiency. Toddlers should have no more than 24 oz. of cow’s milk a day, cites KidsHealth. Malnutrition in the child’s first years of life may also affect the child’s physical health for the rest of his life, leading to chronic absences in school.

School Years

A balanced diet helps children perform better academically. A hungry child may have problems paying attention and thinking. This is why breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. A healthy breakfast of whole grains, low-fat protein, low-fat dairy and fruits and vegetables improves children’s concentration, creative thinking, alertness, problem-solving skills and hand-eye coordination. Meals provide brain fuel. A 1996 study by the Hebrew University found that children who ate breakfast at school performed better on standardized tests than children who ate earlier at home, or did not eat breakfast at all.

No one food acts as a “super” food, magically boosting the brain to optimal performance, but different foods aid learning in different ways. Foods containing iron, such as spinach, beans or cereal, help transport oxygen to the brain. A child with an iron deficiency may have trouble concentrating. Protein–found in meats, dairy, eggs and beans–aids in alertness and motivation. Foods high in B vitamins, such as enriched grains, bananas, fish and dairy products, help the brain’s memory. B vitamin deficiency may result in memory problems and confusion.

Promoting Good Nutrition

Children learn food habits at home, beginning in their first years. Promote good nutrition by offering a variety of healthy foods, and leading by example, eating healthy foods in proportion and staying physically active. Serve a healthy breakfast and pack a healthy lunch, but don’t force a child to clean her plate, which may teach her to eat past feeling full. Make meal time a family gathering. Children who eat family meals are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables and less likely to drink or smoke, cites KidsHealth. Additionally, a 1994 “Reader’s Digest” poll found that high school seniors who frequently shared meals with their families had higher scholastic scores than their peers who did not.
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