Are the foods served at school disrupting our children’s ability to learn and affecting their behavior?


Last week, our 16 year-old had an epiphany: after eating school lunch, he feels foggy, irritable and distracted. If he brings his lunch from home, he’s able to focus and is in a much better mood.

While we could have pointed this out months ago, it wouldn’t have done a thing. Josh is an experiential learner and needed to come to such conclusions on his own. Now he can connect what he eats with how he feels. For the last four school days, he has translated these feelings into action. He has brought his lunch to school.

Behavior, memory and learning disabilities are on the rise. It is estimated that nearly one in six children now suffers from a disability that affects their behavior, memory, or ability to learn.

In many cases, parents resort to prescription medication in order to control their child’s behavior.

But is that the best course of action? Sometimes it is. But often these issues can be effectively addressed through dietary changes.

First, it only makes sense to try and figure out the underlying causes for these problems.  Why are behavior, memory and learning disabilities on the rise?

One reason is that many children are no longer consuming the vital nutrients they need through real foods, but instead are eating diets that are energy dense, nutritionally void and chemically laden.

Numerous studies show that children with symptoms related to hyperactivity disorders have low levels of DHA, an essential fatty acid. If a child is deficient in DHA, the brain does not function optimally.

DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is a major structural fat in the brain. It plays a vital role in the developing brain of a child. It’s even added to formulas (alas another blog topic).

Some of the best sources of DHA are cold-water fish (e.g. mackerel, salmon, herring and sardines), cod liver oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and egg yolks. If your child does not want to eat some of these foods, there are also high quality supplements available that provide DHA.

Iron is another nutrient important for kids’ mental alertness and energy levels. Red meat (preferably 100% grass-fed), poultry, spinach, beans, dried fruits and whole grains are excellent sources.

Antioxidants found in fresh fruits and vegetables as well as nuts, beans and legumes are also essential for brain function. In addition, colorful fruits and vegetables are packed with phytonutrients, which are compounds in plants that are essential for a strong immune system and are anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial. They also aid in cellular repair (which is important if your kids are active in sports).

Additives Can Be a Problem

In school (and often outside of school), kids are regularly fed foods that chemically alter their behavior. Numerous studies show the harmful effects of artificial colors and preservatives.

Some research has shown that children given drinks containing artificial colorings and preservatives (e.g. sodium benzoate) resulted in increased hyperactivity. Sodium benzoate is a preservative, used to destroy yeasts, bacteria, and fungi, therefore preventing spoilage and extending shelf-life. It is pervasive in food products and beverages. It is also used as a preservative in cosmetic products and as a corrosion inhibitor in automotive products.

In some countries, the artificial colorings included in our children’s daily drink choices are banned.

Other research indicates a link between increased risk for cancer and intake of caramel coloring, certain food dyes and sodium nitrate/nitrite. For a complete list of those additives and preservatives that should be avoided, visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest website at   This website also lists those substances that seem to be safe.

If your child is having behavior, memory or learning issues, two other important factors to consider are food sensitivities and blood sugar fluctuations (often due to waiting too long to eat or eating a lot of carb-heavy foods). These issues are best addressed with the help of a health professional (naturopath or dietitian).

As parents and educators who want our children to maximize their learning potential and feel energized, we need to emphasize whole foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, beans, legumes, and nuts/seeds. Removing most processed foods, especially those with artificial colors or preservatives could help tremendously with improving focus and dealing with the aforementioned challenges.


This weeks blog co-written by Steph and Geoff

For more practical nutrition ideas, visit  Stephanie Lecovin, MS RD at:

Stephanie has  extensive experience working with families and kids on meal planning, with  local, sustainable and  organic ingredients.

About the Author

Dr. Geoff LecovinNaturopathic Physician/Chiropractor/Acupuncturist/Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist/Corrective Exercise Specialist/Performance Enhancement Specialist/Certified Sports Nutritionist/View all posts by Dr. Geoff Lecovin