Bright Heart tutor Sally discusses the importance of nutrition for your child’s well-being and for their ability to learn and sleep.
The benefits of a healthy diet
What we eat plays a huge role in our overall well-being. Nutrition is vital when it comes to our physical health; it can improve immunity, energy levels, and sleep quality. Adding certain foods to our diet can help create feel-good hormones and help us to remain calm and happy.
Low blood sugar affects concentration and our ability to learn. Poor nutrition can also lead to mood swings and aggressive behaviour.
Finding a balance
We need to eat a wide variety of foods in the right proportions and consume the right amount to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.
Processed, unhealthy foods (which mainly contain fat, sugar, and salt) do not provide us with the right nutrition. They trigger a reward response in our brains which makes us want to eat more of them. Natural food is better for us because our body can process it more easily and it also contains many more vitamins and nutrients.
The 80-20 rule states that you should eat healthy food 80% of the time. This is an achievable way of maintaining good nutrition rather than cutting out food groups or dieting as it allows you to have treats at the weekends for example.
What should we eat?
The NHS eatwell website states that we should eat vegetables, fruits, grains, healthy fats, and protein-rich foods every day. We should also aim to eat at least 2 portions of fish a week, including 1 portion of oily fish. For each meal, there should be one-third fruit and vegetables, one-third protein, and one-third carbohydrates on our plate.
As mentioned earlier, we need to eat a balanced diet and not cut out any food groups. This is especially important for teenagers who can often have deficiencies.
Food and mental health
Research shows a link between what we eat and how we feel. We have lots of bacteria in our gut which are important and impact our mood and our health. Some foods can help us feel better. A Mediterranean-style diet (one with lots of vegetables, seafood, fresh herbs, garlic, olive oil, cereal, and grains) supplemented with fish oil can reduce the symptoms of depression.
Research has also shown that our gut can reflect how we’re feeling. For example, if we’re stressed, it can speed up or slow down. Healthy food for our gut includes fruit, vegetables, beans, seeds, and probiotics.
Nutrition for learning
Our brain is made of 60% fat, and it is important we include lots of healthy fats in our diets to fuel our brains and to make up the cell membranes of cells in our bodies. Healthy fats can be found in chia seeds, walnuts, avocado, oily fish, Greek yoghurt, and almond or peanut butter.
Many people think it is healthier to choose low-fat rather than full-fat options, but this is not always the case. Low-fat foods such as yoghurt can contain more sugar. Full-fat foods, as part of a balanced diet, stop us from craving junk food and improve our complexion.
Too much sugar can affect our ability to concentrate, drain our energy, ruin our teeth and make us crave more sugar.
It is better to eat a little bit of sugar throughout the day at small intervals rather than eat something with a lot of sugar which will pass through your system too quickly and cause your blood sugar levels to crash. When this happens, we can feel hungry, weak, nervous, nauseous, or tired.
Hydration for learning
Water is very important when it comes to learning. A study found that drinking 300ml of water during an exam improved teenagers’ academic performance and mood. Our bodies are mostly made up of water, and dehydration can lead to headaches, dizziness, and low energy levels. Water can also help with digestion and weight loss.
It is very important to drink water throughout the day rather than sugary drinks or caffeine and energy drinks. For example, one 500ml energy drink can contain up to 17 teaspoons of sugar and the same amount of caffeine as in 2 cups of espresso.
Sugary energy drinks usually contain no nutritional benefits but can cause weight gain, sleep issues, and childhood obesity.
Common deficiencies in children and teenagers
We outline some common deficiencies for parents to be aware of below.
75% of people consume less than recommended daily allowance of magnesium. This can cause irritability and anxiety, sleep issues, loss of appetite, muscle cramps and spasms, facial or eye twitches, and periods of hyperactivity.
Foods that are rich in magnesium include dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, fish (mackerel, salmon, tuna, white fish), legumes (all variety of beans such as black beans, kidney beans, white beans, chickpeas, lentils), avocado, bananas and dark chocolate.
It can be common to have a calcium deficiency and this can cause insomnia, muscle cramps, weak and brittle nails, and the late onset of puberty. Calcium-rich foods include dairy products, tofu, seaweed, dried figs/apricots, almonds, sesame seeds, soya milk, supplements and tahini.
It is very common for teenage girls to have low iron levels. This can cause pale skin, tiredness, breathlessness, poor concentration and affect our ability to learn & recall information.
Good sources of iron include red meat, beans, such as red kidney beans, edamame beans and chickpeas, nuts, dried fruit and fortified breakfast cereals.
It is very hard to get enough vitamin D in our diet and a supplement is recommended by the NHS for all children. A vitamin D deficiency can cause stiffness and achy bones, depression, weight gain, dark circles under the eyes and gut problems.
Foods to aid sleep
Sleep is really important (see Sally’s blog on the importance of sleep here). It restores our energy, improves our mood, and processes memory and learning. It also balances our hormones and boosts our immunity.
It can be hard to fall asleep, especially at times of stress such as exam season, but certain foods can help us to fall asleep more easily. Tryptophan is an amino acid that’s believed to induce sleep and when eaten alongside carbohydrates these foods can help us to feel sleepy. Tryptophan-rich foods include chicken, turkey, milk, dairy, nuts & seeds.
Vitamin B6 is needed to make the sleep hormone melatonin and therefore eating foods rich in B6 such as bananas is a good idea as a bedtime snack.
In summary, we should eat a wide range of foods and ensure that we are not deficient in key vitamins and minerals. Following this advice will help to optimize our well-being and academic potential.
If you are concerned about your child’s eating habits or are worried they are developing eating issues, help and support can be found here.
Please get in touch if you would like to discuss anything in this article or would like to find out more about our nurturing tuition.
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