The Role of Nutrition in Learning

January 24, 2015 Updated: January 25, 2015

We do not hear much about the role of nutrition in learning of school-aged children other than high sugar and refined carbohydrates in the diet, which research has shown can reduce IQ scores by as much as twenty-five points.  Refined carbohydrates actually turn into sugar during the digestive process.

Patrick Holford, in his book, New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, also reports that many children with learning issues have been found to be low in essential fatty acids and/or the nutrients needed to properly utilize them.  Essential fatty acids are not produced by the body and must be obtained from food.  They are needed by the body to support brain function.

Flaxseeds, walnuts, and oily fish, such as salmon,trout, and mackerel, are especially high in essential fatty acids. These acids can be damaged by free-radicals and this is where anti-oxidants come in to help protect our cells from free-radical damage.  Fruits and vegetables are especially high in anti-oxidants.

Processed oils can become oxidized with or without cooking and lead to free radical formation, and are best avoided.  Safflower, corn, sunflower, and canola oils are processed unlike extra virgin coconut and olive oils.  Extra virgin coconut oil is particularly energizing because it is a fast-burning fat, and can help in situations where focusing and sustaining attention is the issue.  It is not agitating to the body and does not get stored in fat tissue because it is so fast-burning.  Chicken and meat in moderation, particularly organic varieties, are good sources of protein, which our body uses as an energy source if carbohydrates become depleted.

Nutritional supplements also have been found effective in some studies in improving the learning ability, including children with dyslexia.   Patrick Holford cites one study of four hundred premature babies fed an enriched milk formula with extra protein, vitamins, and minerals, and their IQ scores were fourteen points higher at eight years as compared to infants initially started on a standard formula.

In another study, children with learning issues showed considerable gains in reading comprehension and grades after one year, and were able to participate in mainstream classrooms. The experimental group reduced their consumption of sugar and refined foods while the control group continued with these foods and only added a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement.

Improving learning through nutrition involves five basic steps:

1. Consuming a diet of minimally processed foods and keeping sugar to a minimum.  Refined sugar and simple carbohydrates in breads, pasta, pastries, and the like gives us quick energy followed by crashes where we have trouble concentrating and feeling energized.

2. A high-quality multi-vitamin and mineral can fill in gaps in nutrition that we cannot always obtain from foods.

3. Eating foods with essential fatty acids support brain function.

4. Consuming fresh fruits and vegetables for their anti-oxidant properties.

5. Have two healthy snacks between meals to sustain energy, which can help in learning.   A fresh fruit with some nuts, a half of an apple with some organic nut butter, or a Greek yogurt with some nuts are quality snacks.