In today’s times, when exceptional intelligence or gifted child prodigies receive media attention, and100% cut-off marks are projected as achievable targets; 95% marks in board exams are considered average. Children today are not only having to deal with peer pressure, and body image issues; but also, the pressure of scoring very high grades to get through a good college in their chosen fields. With mind-boggling competition, everyone wants their children to be exceptional achievers. It is no surprise that the foremost concern of most parents is pertaining to the academic performance of their children.
Nutrition And Cognitive Health
A child belonging to the lower socioeconomic status, not only has to struggle with a lack of educational opportunities but also a lack of healthy nutrition. This child will most likely go through their formative years having a poor diet which lacks most essential nutrients. This may lead to a lower academic performance throughout the school years, which in turn may lead to fewer job opportunities resulting in lower socioeconomic status. When the same child grows up and starts own family, the cycle continues to the next generation. On the other side of the socio-economic spectrum, a child belonging to an affluent urban family also deals with poor nutrition but in a very different way. More than one-third of such children and adolescents, aged 6yrs to 19yrs, are considered overweight or obese. This is because these children are overfed but remain undernourished. Studies show that more than 90% of children in urban areas, belonging to affluent families, consume more than the recommended amounts of saturated fats and added sugars. The consumption of fruits and vegetables in these children is also observed to be less than the recommended intake. Thus, even though they may appear to be well nourished, they have many underlying nutritional deficiencies. Some of these deficiencies impact the performance of these children in academics and extracurricular activities.
Relationship Between Breakfast And Academic Performance
There have been many studies that have looked at the relationship between breakfast consumption and academic performance in children, and most have concluded that eating breakfast improves cognitive functions like memory recall. A study was done in Norway which looked at 475 high school children, found that those who ate breakfast regularly had fewer difficulties in learning, especially mathematics, besides improved reading and writing. Another study carried out in China on kindergarten students found that kids who ate breakfast had higher IQs (intelligent quotients). This was independent of the education level of the parents, or the family’s socioeconomic status. Many similar studies carried out over the years have reported that skipping breakfast was associated with decreased cognitive performance (e.g., alertness, attention, memory, processing of complex visual display, problem-solving, etc.) among the students. Children who do not eat an adequate breakfast can also suffer from hunger pangs while in school, headaches, and stomach pains due to excessive acid, etc. This, besides being a source of distraction for children, can also lead to absence from classes, which in turn can affect academic performance in school.
Relationship Between Specific Foods And Academic Performance
Interestingly, studies have not just found a positive association with breakfast consumption but also between the quality of meals and academic performance. A study carried out in Scotland investigated the consumption of sugary drinks, sweets, chocolates, pizza, savory snacks and hot dogs with learning abilities. The study found that children who had a higher consumption of these foods had increased mathematical difficulties as compared to children who had a more nutritious dietary intake. Another study found that children who ate healthier foods with a low glycemic index had better attention span, word recall and reaction time than children who consumed food with a higher glycemic index that leads to high blood glucose levels soon after consumption Sub-optimal intake of foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, has also been associated with lower grades among students.
Relationship Between Physical Activity And Academic Performance
Physical activity is another very important factor that affects academic performance. Today, many mothers with children as young as 10 years old, feel that enrolling their children in extracurricular activities will take time away from their studies and result in poorer academic results. On the contrary, studies have shown that students who are physically active, perform better in school, compared to children who are physically inactive. These kids not only have better grades but also better attendance and fewer absenteeism, better memory recall, concentration during lessons and lesser disciplinary problems. Physically inactive children who gradually increased their activity showed improved memory and cognitive function than when they were physically inactive.
Relationship Between Specific Nutrients And Academics Performance
There are specific micro-nutrients that have been associated with better academic performance.
Children with deficiencies of micronutrients like vitamin A, B6, B12, folic acid, iron, zinc, and calcium, have shown to score lower grades and result in higher absenteeism. Two nutrients, known to have the strongest relation to school performance, are iron and zinc. Iron is an integral part of hemoglobin which is the oxygen-carrying molecule in the blood. Deficiency of iron is called anemia. Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue or tiredness, lethargy, slowed growth and development, poor appetite, abnormally rapid breathing, behavioral problems or disciplinary issues and susceptibility to frequent infections. All these individually and collectively can lead to increased absenteeism and thereby decreased academic performance. Iron deficiency also directly affects the ability to undertake physical activity, which in turn can further affect performance in school. Zinc is mainly needed for the body’s immune system to work properly. In addition, it is involved in cell growth, wound healing and for the sense of taste and smell. Symptoms of zinc deficiency are depression and psychological disorders, impaired immunity, impaired growth, diarrhea, delayed sexual maturation, alopecia or abnormal hair growth, impaired appetite, altered cognitive functions and altered sense of smell and taste. Zinc deficiency also leads to poorer performance in school. This can be due to the fact that children with zinc deficiency are more prone to catching an infection and falling sick, thereby missing classes, their ability to memorize is affected, there are psychological disorders that can affect learning, etc. So, how can parents ensure that they give their children the best advantage for improving academic performance? Some of the suggestions are as follows:
- Give them a nutritious breakfast.
- Always have healthy snacks stocked in your pantries, so that kids eat the right foods throughout the day.
- Don’t be fooled by “Low Fat” labels. Such products are usually loaded with sugar. Similarly, “natural” does not always mean whole grain or unrefined ingredients. Educate yourself about reading the labels and identifying what they mean.
- Encourage your children to be physically active, it will not only help them improve their academic performance but also help in building their overall personality.
- A good healthy balanced diet will ensure that your children do not suffer from any nutritional deficiencies.
Kanupriya Khanna, a Sr. Consultant Nutritionist & Dietitian specializing in pediatrics, is a private practitioner at Greater Kailash, New Delhi. For over 15 years, she has been working with mothers and children to create more wholesome food habits with the least restrictions and disruptions. She pioneers the science of healthy eating, using fresh ingredients and foods that are easily available and can be integrated easily into daily lives.