18 October 2023
How Nutrition Affects the Brain, Cognitive Abilities, Memory, and Educational Success of Students
Many teachers and parents understand the importance of healthy eating for a child's physical development. However, what we eat also significantly impacts our brains and cognitive abilities. Scientific research increasingly confirms that proper nutrition can be a crucial factor influencing students' educational success.
The saying goes: you are what you eat. And while it’s a somewhat exaggerated phrase, scientists prove that an adequate diet significantly affects students’ cognitive abilities, memory, concentration, and academic performance.
It is difficult to overestimate the role of a properly balanced diet on a child’s health and proper development – including the neurophysiological one. The question is: what does a “properly balanced” diet actually mean?
First: diverse. Even the healthiest breakfast, eaten according to the same recipe every day, will not guarantee children a rich array of nutrients that will help their cognitive development. The more varied the menu and the more nuts, fish, and vegetables in it, the better.
Second: meals should be relatively frequent and eaten regularly at equal intervals. Usually, a diet of four to five full meals a day works best. This ensures that glucose – the energy source for the brain, its “fuel” – is released in the right amount and at the right intervals. The most optimal for the body to “produce” it from complex carbohydrates, a valuable source of which are groats, wholemeal bread, or brown rice (they will, by the way, provide the child with fiber, which is necessary for the proper functioning of the intestines, which in turn affect the neurohormonal economy and the proper functioning of the brain). Products rich in simple sugars, such as sweets, sugary drinks, and highly processed foods, will cause a rapid increase in sugar levels, but also – its rapid decline, which is associated with sleepiness, loss of concentration, and a decrease in energy.
Third: rich in vitamins and minerals that improve memory and cognitive processes. Thus, for example, B vitamins are involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters and are responsible for the proper functioning of nerves. Vitamin D supports the healthy activity of neurons, and its deficiency can lead to irritability, fatigue, and even depression. Magnesium lowers levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), and vitamin C facilitates the synthesis of dopamine and norepinephrine, which have a key effect on students’ motivation and concentration.
Dangerous in its consequences is iron deficiency, which – according to Medical News Today – 10 million people in the U.S. suffer from. It leads to brain oxygen deprivation, subsequently decreasing concentration abilities and impacting memory. Scientific studies also show that unsaturated fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids, play a vital role in a child’s brain development – they are essential for building cell membranes in neurons, affecting their functioning and communication. Therefore, it’s valuable to include sources of omega-3 fatty acids in a child’s diet, such as fatty fish, nuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds.
A school that teaches the human and about the human holistically
The school holds a pivotal role as an educational environment that not only teaches core subjects but also shapes behaviors and habits. Health education, including learning the principles of healthy eating, is part of the school’s mission as a place where students develop at every level of their functioning: emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual, somatic, and other.
Classrooms can introduce topics related to the food pyramid, the effects of different nutrients on health and brain function, and developing food label reading skills. It is important for schoolchildren to know how their intestines function, what foods serve them, what vitamins and minerals they need, and what foods they can find them in. They should also learn about the symptoms of deficiencies of various substances.
One valuable project could be for students to create a weekly meal plan together. This activity allows children to understand the importance of a balanced diet and meal planning but also teaches them, with practical examples, which foods contain which micronutrients and what their caloric content is. In addition, holding cooking contests or hands-on cooking lessons can make conscious meal preparation – in opposition to buying highly processed meals or fast food – fun and enjoyable for children, which develops good eating and consumer habits.
Through a variety of teaching methods, schools can effectively impart knowledge on the subject and help students form healthy eating habits that will benefit them throughout their lives. Healthy nutrition education in schools is of great importance to students’ health and future success. Teaching healthy eating principles not only affects students’ physical and mental health as well as cognitive processes but also contributes to the fight against obesity and diet-related diseases, which the World Health Organization alerts are becoming an epidemiological problem.
Self-care, one of the key competencies
Holistic Think Tank, in a list of 10 values “What School Ought to Teach,” placed “self-care” as one of the crucial competencies for the future. It is on the well-being and health, both mental and somatic, of today’s students that the quality of their lives will depend. In forming awareness, knowledge, and good habits regarding this sphere of human functioning, the school can help.
Healthy nutrition is one of the main elements of self-care. Nutrition that provides essential nutrients affects our concentration, creativity, and cognitive abilities, ultimately translating into better educational achievement, but most importantly – it affects our mental well-being, emotional well-being, physical health, and life expectancy. Therefore, education on healthy nutrition should not be left out of school.