Food for thought
Can kids eat their way to better grades?
It’s something we have speculated on for centuries — how food affects us. One can imagine medieval mothers plying their children with garlic to balance their humors: “Honey, you need more black bile but less phlegm!”
The bottom line: Healthy breakfasts count. Study after study has shown that some breakfast is better than none, and at least one study found that a healthy morning meal — with whole grains and protein — boosts academic performance.
Try to avoid processed foods as much as possible. Since we don’t know what’s in them, and at least some studies show that additives — the mainstay of processing that gives products a long shelf life — contribute to hyperactivity, the safest option is to give your child as many single-ingredient or homemade foods as possible: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, eggs, and meat. Or check out our picks for healthy cereals.
By Carol Lloyd
Pop quiz: If you take a classroom of hungry kids and mainline Ding Dongs into their veins, then give them a math test, what’s going to happen? How about first offering them a Skittles free-for-all? A Pop-Tarts pig-out? Or a french fry feeding frenzy?
Ask any parent to offer anecdotes about how food affects kids’ brains, and the floodgates open. To wit: At my daughter’s recent birthday party, the 6-year-old girls decorated masks with the focus of Renaissance masters until we served the chocolate cake. Within minutes the scene had regressed 1,700 odd years to a bacchanalia of half-naked, sugar-smeared revelers, intent on raising Hades from the underworld with their screams.
Parents in attendance marveled at the “classic sugar rush.”
But what was really happening in those little brains? And what does science tell us about food’s relationship to cognition?
A famine of facts
As a firm, some might say fanatical, believer in the power of food to influence kids’ thinking — and specifically their academic performance — I was eager to dive into the sea of literature on this topic.
Prepared for some serious Internet surfing, I soon found myself wading in a veritable puddle of research. Compared to thousands of other arenas on, say, television’s impact on the brain or the influence of classroom size on learning, less seems to be known about how food affects children’s mental functioning.
“I was surprised too,” says Kerri Tobin, a third-year graduate student in education at Vanderbilt University who is researching the potential link between fast food and academic performance. “There’ve been plenty of studies on the effects of malnutrition, mineral deficiencies, and the importance of breakfast but not that much on foods.”
Sugar, fat, and additives — oh my!
Some of the findings, she says, challenge conventional wisdom. For instance, researchers have found that sugars — be they natural or artificial — don’t cause hyperactivity. Another study found that children, like adults, performed better on mental cognition and memory tests when amped up on caffeine. “Though I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that we give caffeine to children,” Tobin hastens to add.
There have been fewer studies focusing on how certain foods affect cognition, though there is a growing body of research on how diets affect Alzheimer’s patients. Tobin cites one study in which rats fed a diet high in saturated fats had slower cognitive functioning than those on a normal diet. Another study, published in 2005 by the American Society for Nutrition, found that higher intakes of PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids found in fish and vegetable oils) may contribute to improved academic performance while increased ingestion of cholesterol was linked to poorer performance.
In the past 30 years, several studies have attempted to understand the effects of additives in our foods. According to one meta study published in 2004, many reports have documented that colorings, preservatives, and other additives carry adverse behavioral effects.