Optimum Nutrition for Learning
Learning involves numerous biochemical processes along with lightning-fast nerve transmissions between synapses in the brain. These are influenced by nutrition, hydration, sleep, stress and exercise.
Many students start their day at a nutritional disadvantage. In addition, as the day progresses, many eat a diet low in essential nutrients or consume foods filled with chemicals that have been shown to adversely affect the brain. This may affect their ability to stay focused, learn and retain information.
When volunteering at my son’s elementary school, I witnessed this first hand a few weeks ago. I was quite shocked to see that in general, parents send their children to school with unhealthy, highly processed snacks and lunches, or children purchased school lunch (which was no healthier). I also watched as teachers were constantly having to discipline one or more students in order to keep the class on task.
Learning is a neurochemical process as well as an academic one. By nourishing the brain with healthy foods and adequate water, kids will be better able to achieve their potential.
How to feed your brain
The brain is composed primarily of fat and water. There are about 100 billion brain cells called neurons that facilitate thinking, learning, feeling and behavior. Neurons need healthy fats, proteins, complex carbohydrates, micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients) and water.
These nutrients drive the learning functions of neurons by providing the raw materials necessary for building and strengthening a healthy and optimally functioning brain.
Macro and Micro Nutrients
Macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) provide energy that regulates growth and repair of cells.
Many micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are antioxidants that support the immune system, aid in reducing inflammation, and can minimize the incidence of illness and disease.
Because of the brain’s high fat content, it is especially vulnerable to damage and thus requires high levels of antioxidants for protection.
How to feed the brain for optimal learning
- Good fats
Aside from providing energy, fats in the brain provide flexible and dynamic membranes capable of transmitting and receiving information, and maintaining other cell functions such as energy production and water storage. In addition, fats help with the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K), which are important for cognitive function.
A diet high in essential fats has been shown to have favorable effects on behavioral problems such as ADHD.
The best fats to consume are:
- Omega-3 oils from fish, nuts, seeds, grass-fed meats and dark leafy greens
- Saturated fats from organic eggs, coconut oil and grass-fed meats
- Monounsaturated fats from avocado and olive oil
- MCT oil from coconut
Unfortunately, many of these healthy fats are displaced by foods high in trans fats, which create stiff membranes instead of flexible ones. This impairs cell communication, can impede the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain, and can hinder the removal of wastes from the brain.
A high trans fat diet has been linked to learning difficulties in addition to all causes of mortality. Children eating a lot of processed cakes and crackers, French fries and fried meats loaded with trans fats will build a different brain than a child who is eating fish, eggs cooked in olive oil, grass-fed meats, nuts and salad dressings made with olive and natural ingredients.
Protein is made up of amino acids, building blocks that are used to form neurotransmitters and support the structures in neurons. Amino acids also function to protect DNA and other cell components vulnerable to oxidative damage.
Good sources of protein include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, dairy (e.g. cottage cheese and Greek yogurt) and nuts. These should be unprocessed and in the case of nuts, preferably raw.
Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, the main fuel for the brain.
Many students consume excessive sugar for breakfast and snacks, causing bursts of energy followed by trouble concentrating, drowsiness and sometimes headaches.
The intermittent spikes in sugar from a refined diet cause the pancreas to release insulin, which transports sugar into cells in order to keep blood sugar levels stable. This can affect attention and alertness and lead to cravings for more sugar in order to boost energy.
Starting the day with a donut, refined breakfast cereal, sugary bar or juice drink, having a refined snack, followed by a predominantly refined lunch, will lead to a roller coaster effect of this sugar-insulin response.
The best carbohydrates for the brain are complex (i.e. vegetables, fruits, whole grains and whole grain products). These contain complex sugars for energy and fiber, which slows the rate of absorption of sugar. Complex carbohydrates have a lower glycemic response, so they do not cause the insulin spikes seen from refined carbohydrates and can help to maintain a steady energy level optimum for attention and learning.
Unrefined carbohydrates are also good sources of micronutrients.
Micronutrients are needed in small amounts and are essential for brain health. Key brain vitamins include B-vitamins for the biochemical processes involving energy for brain cells, as well as manufacturing neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA, which aid in focus and concentration. B-vitamins are found in grains and dark green leafy vegetables.
The mineral zinc is found in seeds and nuts, as well as red meat. It is also involved in producing neurotransmitters and is important for memory.
Calcium is another mineral which is used to help maintain the electrical environment in the brain and to regulate nerve transmission. Calcium is found in dairy products, almonds, greens, broccoli and soy.
Iron is necessary for the synthesis of neurotransmitters and myelin; iron deficiency is found in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Phytonutrients are micronutrients founds in plants that have tremendous health benefits for the brain due to their function as antioxidants.
Phytonutrients are found in fruits and vegetables and are critical for the repair and protection of neurons.
Water is essential for optimal brain health and function. It is necessary to maintain cell membrane integrity needed for normal neurotransmission. It enhances circulation and aids in removing wastes. Water also keeps the brain from overheating, which can cause cognitive decline and even damage.
Dehydration most commonly occurs because children go long periods of time without drinking water. In addition, kids often choose sweetened drinks instead of water when thirsty.
Thirst is a poor indicator of hydration. By the time thirst is felt, there may be up to 2% loss in body weight from water loss, accompanied by a 10% cognitive decline.
Inadequate hydration can lead to fatigue, dizziness, poor concentration and reduced cognitive abilities. Even mild levels of dehydration can impact school performance.
Children should be encouraged to take structured water breaks or to keep a water bottle at their desks to sip throughout the day to achieve the recommended intake. Water bottles should be stainless steel or made from BPA-free plastic.
Take Home Messages
Nutrition and hydration are part of a foundation for healthy learning. Helping students make healthier choices is an essential part of their education and well-being.
- Keep a water bottle at their desk or take water breaks throughout the day. Water bottles should be stainless steel or BPA-free plastic and reusable.
- Be encouraged to bring only healthy snacks – such as fruit, whole grain crackers, or veggies and a dip.
- Be taught how to choose the healthiest foods from the menu that are available if they purchase food at school.
- Have balanced meals throughout the day, starting with breakfast, consisting of complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats.
Parents should be aware of the school’s Wellness Policy and support changes that incorporate healthy nutrition habits as mentioned above.
Ultimately, this should include incorporating nutrition education into the curriculum.
By incorporating healthy food and water into the classroom experience, students will be more attentive, energetic and primed for optimal learning.
Sample daily meal plan for optimal learning
- Banana-Berry Smoothie (makes one serving) – Blend together:
- ½ large, peeled, frozen or fresh banana, broken into chunks (freeze the banana in chunks if you want a creamier smoothie)
- ½ cup fresh or frozen berries (preferably organic)
- ½ -1 cup water or milk (organic cow’s milk, rice, soy, almond, hemp, etc.) – start with ½ cup and add more if you prefer a thinner consistency
- Up to ½ cup fresh, packed organic spinach leaves or other dark, green, leafy veggie like chard or kale (thick stems removed)
- Optional: nut butter (peanut, almond or cashew butter), protein powder without artificial ingredients, ground flaxseed and/or hempseed, flavored fish oil (lemon, orange, mango)
- To make it sweeter, just add more banana or some local honey
- 1 cup oatmeal with ½ sliced apple, chopped walnuts, 1 tsp honey and cinnamon to taste
- If no protein was used in the smoothie, have 2 scrambled eggs or two chicken sausages instead of oatmeal (or in addition if your child is hungry or plays sports)
AM- Sliced apple with almond butter
PM- Sliced carrots with hummus
- Sandwich- whole grain bread, spinach, nitrate-free turkey or tuna
- “Healthy” chip option (no hydrogenated oil)
- ½ sliced apple or another serving of fruit
- Homemade pesto (blend basil, garlic, sea salt, olive oil) on pasta (we use gluten-free quinoa-based pasta but whole grain pasta could be used) with chicken sausage and kale chips –OR-
- Salmon cakes with sweet potato fries and steamed/roasted/sautéed broccoli
- Sliced banana with nut butter