Healthy Foundations for Learning

October 04, 2012 • Children's Health

Healthy Foundations For Learning

My five year old recently entered his first year of elementary school. When I dropped him off for his first day of kindergarten I celebrated, and grieved, the important transition to this new phase of his life. I also realized he was on his own. Ultimately, his behavior, learning attitude, energy, and mood are up to him to manage through his day. This makes my role in creating a healthy foundation going into school more important than ever. Making sure his mind and body are healthy is my priority to ensure his only challenges during his day involve learning new things and building healthy social skills that will serve him throughout his life.

This article describes many learning factors which can impact all children and some specific attention is paid to the unique case of ADHD where applicable. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a condition characterized by developmentally inappropriate inattention and impulsivity with or without hyperactivity.

Learning Factors

The rationale behind a healthy diet and effective learning is focused around stable energy (mental and physical) and stable mood. When the child has energy and is happy, she/he is better able to participate in the activities presented, better able to get work done in class, and better equipped to have more positive social interactions. When her/his energy drops, the child may have less drive to engage, to interact, and as a result school may not feel like such a positive and fun place. The child's ability to retain information may also drop.

Five steps to a healthy foundation for learning:

  1. Feed your child a healthy diet that includes healthy choices at home, healthy lunch choices and snacks taken to school. This means no junk food or processed food (e.g. Lunchables, ready-made puddings, deli-meats, processed cheese slices, etc.), fast food and food additives, especially sugary foods and beverages, white flour, and deep fried foods. Junk food contains excess amounts of salt, sugar, saturated fat and food additives. This affects attention, blood sugar and therefore energy and mood. Avoid processed food which contains food dyes, added preservatives and artificial flavors since many of these chemicals can be stimulating to the child, resulting in increased impulsivity and poor attention. An increased quantity of whole foods maximizes their nutritional value. Encourage your child to consume more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, clean protein sources (e.g. organic chicken breast, fish, hummus, nuts and seeds), pure water (less juice) and fiber. Ensure that meal times and snacks are consistent to maintain even blood sugar levels.
  2. Maintain a healthy environment - Stay away from cooking with pots and pans with non-stick coating. This avoids the use of per-fluorinated chemicals (PFC's) found in non-stick coatings like Teflon. Exposure to this has been associated with increased impulsivity in kids. One study showed with each 1mcg of PFC per litre of blood, the rate of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder went up as much as 32%. If your child struggles with impulsivity and or inattention consider having their heavy metal levels tested. Low-level lead intoxication has been associated with addictive behaviors and impulsivity.
  3. Make sure your child is well rested – Children aged 3-6 years old typically need 10-12 hours per day and will typically go to bed between 7-9pm. By 7-12 years of age that decreases to around 9-11 hours per day. Bedtime gradually becomes later at around 12 years old, to around 9pm. In high school aged children (12-18 years old), sleep is just as important than ever, however social pressures often prevent our teens from getting the 8-9 hours of sleep per night that they need.
  4. Feed your child's brain - Essential fatty acids in the brain are critical to neuronal structure and function. They have been shown to play a beneficial role in ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, cognitive function in children, and school performance. Most of the studies associate positive outcomes with dosing appropriate levels of certain omega-3 fats called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). For this reason, I recommend all school-aged children take omega-3 oils that will provide approximately 500-900mg each of DHA and EPA. The exact levels and ratios of the two omega-3 types may vary if there are specific concerns for the child. Omega-3 oils also have numerous and well established health benefits outside the topic of learning and attention. Other nutrients which may be particularly helpful in a child with ADHD include magnesium, zinc, iron and B vitamins.
  5. Find food allergies – Food allergies and sensitivities can contribute to fatigue, poor concentration, depression or anxiety in children, mood changes, and ADHD. Identification of food allergies and sensitivities can be done through blood or skin scratch testing as well as elimination/challenge diets under the supervision of your naturopathic physician. Read more on information about food allergy/sensitivity testing.

School is the beginning of your child's life-long love of learning. Help make it a positive experience by ensuring that they are energetic, happy and clear-headed when they leave your loving arms.

"Health, learning and virtue will ensure your happiness; they will give you a quiet conscience, private esteem and public honour." ~ Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826);