The nutritional quality of our diet affects our wellbeing throughout our lives, but it has an even greater impact on children whose bodies and minds are still growing. Nutritional deficiencies can seriously damage a child’s neural development, possibly leading to lower IQ and learning disabilities.
Studies by neuroscientists have found that low-quality nutrition during childhood can be detrimental to the development of cognitive capabilities, such as learning, problem solving and memorizing. Early malnourishment can lead to deficiencies in vision, fine motors skills, language and social skills as well as an array of chronic illnesses lasting well into adulthood.
Poor Diet Choices During Childhood Can Have
Lasting Consequences for Body and Mind
Unfortunately, the crucial role nutrition plays for developmental, cognitive and behavioral outcomes in life’s early stages is often not well understood and appropriately acted upon by schools and parents.
Some scientists see a direct link between high saturated fat intake and mental performance. Tests have shown that many items popular in school cafeterias such as hamburgers, chicken nuggets, pizza and French fries actually lower students’ ability to stay awake and concentrate. A dramatic drop in energy due to digestion of heavy foods leaves kids feeling lethargic, irritable and unable to focus.
According to a study by the American School Health Association (ASHA), students who had consistently insufficient protein intake scored lower on achievement tests than their classmates who had adequate nutrition. Students with chronic iron deficiency were more likely to suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Under- or malnourished children were found more prone to infections and illnesses, causing them to miss school and fall behind in their education.
Pediatricians and pediatric dietitians have long emphasized that giving kids a healthy breakfast plays an especially important role for their nutritional wellbeing. Without a boost at the start of their day, young brains cannot function well. To do its work, the brain needs a sufficient supply of healthy fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water. Sugary cereals or white-flour pancakes with syrup don’t offer many essential nutrients. Eggs (preferably egg whites only), whole grain breads, fruits and low-fat milk are better choices.
By lunchtime, most children’s bodies are depleted and in dire need of another energy provider. Highly caloric and fatty foods with little or no nutritional value only worsen the situation. Soups, salads, fruits, vegetables, lean protein sources and whole grains can do the job much better. If your child’s school cafeteria does not offer healthy lunch choices, prepare a box lunch for him or her to take along.
An afternoon snack before play or study time is recommended, but, again, sugary items like candy, pastries and sodas should be avoided. Instead, you can serve a fruit salad or a tray of raw veggies and yogurt dips.
Dinner should help your child to wind down and relax before bedtime. Fatty foods like pizza or cheeseburgers are not a good idea. Items that contain high amounts of sugar late in the day can lead to sleep disruptions. Age-appropriate portions of pasta topped with a hearty vegetable sauce (preferably made from scratch), fish, chicken and other lean meats combined with healthy side dishes complete your child’s nutritional needs for the day.
Eating habits develop early. Most children acquire them from their parents and older siblings. Kids don’t develop food preferences on their own, not even for candy. They learn what to like or dislike by observing others. What you as the parent buy and bring in the house is what they will have access to. How you treat your own body in terms of diet, exercise and lifestyle choices will influence their own behavior.
Considering the potentially grave consequences of malnutrition during childhood, parents have a great responsibility to invest in their offspring’s nutritional health. Unfortunately, budgetary limitations and lack of knowledge about basic dietary facts prevent many parents from making better choices. They should not be expected to do it all on their own. A concerted effort involving families, schools, government agencies and community services is necessary to improve the nutritional welfare of all members of society, and especially the young.