A couple of weeks ago I posted a blog about measuring teacher effectiveness. While I was writing this blog, I reflected on how many different factors influence children’s success in school, and how you can’t just pin everything on the teacher. This gave me the idea to write a series of blogs about many of the things that are known to positively affect children’s success in school. Today I would like to start with one of the things that parents can do: provide children with nutrition that supports brain health and growth, and exercise.
A healthy diet and exercise are important for all of us. There is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence that shows the benefits of healthy food and exercise not only for health, well-being, and for the prevention of diseases, but also for our cognitive capacities. For growing and developing brains healthy food and exercise are even more essential.
There are a lot of diet books out there and a lot of conflicting advice about what is healthy to eat and what isn’t. Because all this conflicting information is so confusing, it is helpful to rely on common sense. You can’t go wrong with fresh fruits and vegetables. Here are some tips on how to avoid ingesting pesticides when you eat fruits and vegetables. Five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables are recommended each day. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids are also important foods that support brain health. Examples are cold water fish, flaxseed oil, and seeds and nuts. Especially walnuts and almonds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Make sure the nuts are raw, because when they are roasted the heat changes the chemical structure of the healthy fats, making them less beneficial. Another essential component of a brain-healthy diet is whole grains. Foods to avoid are enriched bleached flour, high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar, trans fats or hydrogenated oils, saturated fat, and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Check out this list of brain healthy super foods.
If your child is accustomed to eating highly processed, sugary foods, it may be challenging to transition her to a more healthy diet. Especially if she is a very picky eater, who refuses to have anything to do with vegetables. Children are constantly bombarded with aggressive ad campaigns that market sugary unhealthy foods. It is challenging for many parents to compete with that. One way to make your life easier is to introduce healthy foods from the very beginning and to avoid purchasing highly processed, sugary, and fatty junk food. If you avoid giving your child these foods, she will not miss them, and she will grow accustomed to eating healthy. However, if your child is already used to eating unhealthy foods, it is important to take steps to remove these foods from her diet and introduce more healthy nutrition.
- The first step is to become a good role model: show your child that you have healthy eating habits, and get rid of the junk foods that you like to eat.
- An easy place to start is with fresh fruit. Most children love fruit: it is sweet and tasty, yet it does not contain processed sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Replace soda, “fruit drinks” or “juice drinks” with 100% fruit juice (with no sugar or other ingredients added) diluted with water. Then gradually replace the juice with water only.
- Another thing you can do is find healthy alternatives for the sugary foods your child likes: for example, find a whole grain alternative for your child’s sugary cereal.
- “Hiding” vegetables in sauces, fruit smoothies, or treats like muffins and brownies, is another way you can increase your child’s vegetable intake.
- Talk with your child about the importance of feeding our brains healthy foods.
- Give your child a choice between two or three healthy food options. This way, you empower your child by giving them the choice, but you decide what the options will be.
- Remove all unhealthy food from the home, and replace it with healthy foods. This means you will have to give up junk food as well… Ultimately this step is for the benefit of the whole family, including the parents!
- Pack your child’s lunch and make sure your child eats a healthy breakfast before going to school. School cafeterias often serve highly processed foods that are high in fat and sugar content. You will be better off packing a lunch you prepared yourself with fresh, healthy ingredients.
Check out this clip from the documentary Supersize Me about school lunches – the clip becomes especially interesting after four minutes: it shows a school that replaced junk food with fresh, healthy foods. Students had improved behavior and improved academic achievement after these healthy foods were introduced.
Finally, exercising regularly is an essential component of a healthy life style that supports healthy brain growth and development, and will help your child achieve success in school. Just as there is an overwhelming body of scientific research that shows the benefits of healthy nutrition, there is an equally overwhelming body of research showing the benefits of regular exercise for the functioning of our brains. Twenty to thirty minutes of moderate exercise each day is recommended. Finding twenty minutes a day to go for a walk, play in the park, go for a bike ride, swim in your neighborhood pool, or do another activity together can be a great way for you to spend quality time with your child. This will not only benefit your and your child’s health, it can also help to improve your relationship and bring you closer together as a family.