As the saying goes, we are what we eat! When a child’s brain and body gets the right nutrition, there is a marked difference in the child’s mood, ability to focus, and capacity to learn. One way to help your child choose healthy food is to eat healthy yourself, which gives your kids the best chance to form healthy eating habits.
One of the toughest behaviour problems kids (and parents) face is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). But diets that are rich in nutrients and that limit fast food or other empty calories, can help improve symptoms of hyperactivity, concentration, and impulsivity in children with ADHD. Learn how PediaSure Complete® can play a role in the dietary management of ADHD here.
Physical activity requires energy, and kids get energy from the foods they eat. A balanced diet that contains all food groups will help ensure your child has the energy to lead an active life. Being physically active helps kids feel better in so many ways. A recent study showed that kids 7-9 years old who were physically active on a regular basis were not only fitter, but also demonstrated better attention, decision making, and multitasking skills than kids who were less physically active1 – all vital tasks that help kids perform both in school and in life.
Four important nutrients for active kids include: protein, carbohydrates, calcium, and vitamin D.
Protein is the nutrient that builds and maintains muscles. It also plays a part in the health of every cell in the body. Kids need protein so their muscles can do the work required to run, jump, and exercise.
Carbohydrates are the main source of your child’s energy. It’s what their body “burns” when it does physical work—like playing sports, skateboarding, or swimming. Carbohydrates like those from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are preferable because the body digests them more slowly so they don’t cause blood sugar spikes. Carbohydrates from sweets and processed foods, like chocolate bars or candy cause a rush of energy, but once they burn off, can result in a significant “crash”.
Calcium is responsible for building and maintaining strong bones, which are the framework for a healthy body. Vitamin D is important because it helps the body process and absorb the calcium it takes in.
1. Hillman, CH et al. The effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function. Pediatrics 2014;134:e1063
Cognitive development is all about brain health. Kids’ brains grow fast. The brain is nearly 90% its final size by the time a child is 3, and the primary growth phase is between birth and 2 years of age.2 Your child’s memory, ability to learn language, perform tasks, reason, concentrate, solve problems, and more depend on cognitive development. DHA is recognized as a very important nutrient for both cognitive and visual development.2
DHA is the most prominent fatty acid in the brain.2 Nutrition is even more important where DHA is concerned, because the body does not produce any. We only get DHA from foods such as salmon, anchovies, walnuts, certain omega-3 enriched foods, or supplements. The usual intake of DHA in toddlers and children’s diet can be low due to the nature of the foods DHA is present in, so ensuring they get DHA is essential.
2. Kuratko, CN et al. The Relationship of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) with Learning and Behavior in Healthy Children: A Review. Nutrients 2013;5, 2777-2810; doi:10.3390/nu5072777
The immune system protects your child from disease and infection. It’s always working, mainly in the digestive tract where most of the bacteria live. Since 70% of the immune system is located in the intestines, digestive health is critical to maintaining a healthy immune system.
A balanced diet will usually provide the immune system with the nutrients it needs to fight off infection. Certain nutrients, like fibre and probiotics (“good” bacteria found in yogurt, berries, and even pickles) work together in the digestive tract to help support the immune system. Fibre keeps the digestive tract functioning properly and moving digested food and waste out of our bodies. Good sources of fibre include whole grain breads and cereals, fruits, and vegetables.
Much research has gone into figuring out how nutrition affects learning, concentration, focus, and attention in school. Decades ago, educators realized that kids who were hungry often didn’t do well. This gave rise to free lunch programs for underprivileged kids. Breakfast service at school soon followed, as the connection between nutrition and academic performance became clearer. The National Education Association states that kids who eat breakfast at school have better attendance and fewer behaviour problems.
Breakfast is especially important for kids attending school. Studies have shown that students who consume breakfast in the morning have an improved attention span and are less distracted in class.3 School breakfast programs have also been shown to improve student attendance and reduce tardiness.3 Eating breakfast foods high in fibre can help kids to feel full longer and therefore not be distracted by hunger later in the morning, helping improve attention and focus on schoolwork.
However, it’s not just whether a child is hungry that affects school performance. Research indicates the quality of foods children eat also impacts cognition. A Canadian study (The Children’s Lifestyle and School-performance Study) looked at the impact of overall diet quality on school performance in 5th graders, and found that diet quality was independently associated with better academic performance, specifically in children who had better dietary adequacy and variety.4 This highlights the importance and impact of consuming a variety of nutrient-rich foods in the 4 food groups, not only on your child’s health but on their academic performance.
3. Alberta Health Services. Healthy Eating and School Performance: An Evidence Summary. Available at: http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/assets/info/nutrition/if-nfs-evidence-brief-school-performance.pdf (PDF, 56 KB). Accessed: 2016-01-05
4. Florence, MD et al. Diet Quality and Academic Performance. J Sch Health 2008;78:209-15.