Can Nutrition Affect School Performance?
When we think about supporting our children to do well at school, most of the focus goes towards helping with their homework, ensuring they have a tutor for any subjects they find difficult, or talking to them about the importance of listening carefully in class and studying hard.
A healthy diet is often overlooked as a fundamental part of the ‘support team’ that can help your child function at their best. The evidence to support this, however, is clear.
Listed below are some key nutrients that can help optimise cognitive function, including attention, reading ability and memory, and even improve behaviour, thereby helping to give your children the best chance to thrive in the classroom.
Sufficient iron intake in school-aged children is essential for optimal cognitive functioning, including memory and attention. Several studies have demonstrated that supplementation in anaemic school children increases IQ and improves cognitive performance. (1)
Iron deficiency can affect neurotransmitter homeostasis, decrease myelin production, impair the synthesis of synapses, and damage the function of the basal ganglia. (2)
Top sources of iron include lean meat and seafood, which provide heme iron, the most easily absorbed form of iron. Nuts, beans, vegetables and fortified grain products provide nonheme iron. To increase the absorption of nonheme iron, pair with foods rich in vitamin C, such as capsicum, citrus fruits, broccoli, or strawberries. (3)
Omega 3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are one of the key nutrients to help children thrive at school. Sufficient intake has been shown to improve reading ability and attention, and there is even evidence to support the use of omega 3 supplements to improve symptoms of ADHD in children. (4, 5).
Cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines, all contain high amounts of omega 3 fatty acids in the form of DHA and EPA, which are more readily absorbable.
Plant sources of omega 3s include seaweed, algae, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, edamame, and some legumes. Plants contain a version of omega 3s known as ALA, which are less easily absorbed and therefore need to be consumed in larger quantities to reach adequate intake.
Zinc is one of the most important micronutrients for humans, and a deficiency of zinc during school years can be harmful to children’s growth, immune system and cognitive function. (7) Zinc deficiency may also alter attention, memory, emotional behaviour, language skills, intelligence, and the ability to learn.
Zinc supplementation has been shown to increase cognitive ability in school-aged children, thereby positively influencing academic performance. (7)
The richest food source of zinc is oysters, but this is probably not a favourite food choice for many children! Other sources include lean meats, nuts, legumes and fortified grains. (8)
Iodine is critical for the production of the thyroid hormone, which is extremely important for cognitive and neurodevelopment during fetal life, infancy, and childhood. (9) The World Health Organisation estimates that approximately 37% of school-aged children worldwide are iodine deficient, and this is the most common preventable cause of mental retardation in children. (9)
Foods that can provide dietary iodine include seafood, seaweed, iodised salt, and animal products such as meat and milk. (9)
Vitamin B12 is essential for brain development, neural myelination, and cognitive function. (10) Deficiency is relatively common, particularly amongst pregnant women and during early childhood, and this may have detrimental effects on child health outcomes, including impaired cognitive development.
Apart from fortified products, such as nutritional yeast and some grains, the only dietary sources of vitamin B12 are animal-based products. Consequently, if your child is vegan, it is vital to speak to a health professional regarding Vitamin B12 status.
Variety is key
It can be overwhelming trying to plan healthy meals to make sure that your child is getting all of these important nutrients into their diets, however, the best way to make sure you’re not missing anything is to focus on diversity!
Providing a well-rounded diet for your child, including lots of different vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy, seafood, lean meats and whole grains, will provide them with these essential nutrients (and more!) and ensure that they are well-equipped to excel in the classroom.
1. Larson LM, Phiri KS, Pasricha SR. Iron and cognitive development: what is the evidence?. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2017;71(Suppl. 3):25-38.
2. Pivina L, Semenova Y, Doşa MD, Dauletyarova M, Bjørklund G. Iron deficiency, cognitive functions, and neurobehavioral disorders in children. Journal of Molecular Neuroscience. 2019 May 15;68(1):1-0.
3. Iron Fact Sheet for Health Professionals [Internet]. 2021 [cited January 15, 2021]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/.
4. Johnson M, Fransson G, Östlund S, Areskoug B, Gillberg C. Omega 3/6 fatty acids for reading in children: a randomized, double‐blind, placebo‐controlled trial in 9‐year‐old mainstream schoolchildren in Sweden. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2017 Jan;58(1):83-93.
5. Bos DJ, Oranje B, Veerhoek ES, Van Diepen RM, Weusten JM, Demmelmair H, Koletzko B, Eilander A, Hoeksma M, Durston S. Reduced symptoms of inattention after dietary omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in boys with and without attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2015 Sep;40(10):2298-306.
6. Khodashenas E, Mohammadzadeh A, Sohrabi M, Izanloo A. The effect of zinc supplementation on cognitive performance in schoolchildren. International Journal of Pediatrics. 2015;3(6.1):1033-8.
7. de Moura JE, de Moura EN, Alves CX, de Lima Vale SH, Dantas MM, de Araújo Silva A, das Graças Almeida M, Leite LD, Brandão-Neto J. Oral zinc supplementation may improve cognitive function in schoolchildren. Biological trace element research. 2013 Oct 1;155(1):23-8.
8. Zinc Fact Sheet for Health Professionals [Internet]. 2021 [cited January 15, 2021]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/.
9. Hassen HY, Beyene M, Ali JH. Dietary pattern and its association with iodine deficiency among school children in southwest Ethiopia; A cross-sectional study. PloS one. 2019 Aug 13;14(8):e0221106.
10. Venkatramanan S, Armata IE, Strupp BJ, Finkelstein JL. Vitamin B-12 and cognition in children. Advances in nutrition. 2016 Sep;7(5):879-88.
11. Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Health Professionals [Internet]. 2021 [cited January 15, 2021]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/pdf/factsheets/VitaminB12-Consumer.pdf.
Written By Brittany Darling
NUTRITIONIST (BHSC), WESTERN HERBAL MEDICINE (ADV DIP),
CERT. PAEDIATRIC NUTRITION