N is for Nutrition. Can good nutrition really help you do better at school?

The human brain relies on a constant supply of blood glucose to function at its best....

Read Kate Percy's recent contribution to the "A-Z for School Improvement through Sport and PE", edited by Shaun Dowling, Head of Sport, United Learning and David Woods CBE:

N is for Nutrition

Can the application of sports nutrition principles enhance academic performance?

It is now widely accepted that achieving potential in sport is not just about training hard. Healthy eating and making the right food choices is inextricably linked to better performance in sport, enabling practitioners train, compete and recover stronger and faster. Active young people need good nutrition to support basic growth and development as well as additional nutrient-rich calories to fuel their sport. A balanced and varied diet, with particular emphasis on slow-release carbohydrates, lean protein, unsaturated fats and adequate hydration not only provides sustained energy, but concentration and focus. The principles of sports nutrition can be adapted to the suit the diet of less active pupils; nourishing the body with a healthy, unprocessed, nutrient-rich diet will fuel the brain for effective learning, optimising the pupil’s ability to engage in the classroom and therefore achieve his or her potential.

The human brain is a highly metabolically active tissue that depends on a constant supply of blood glucose to meet its energy needs. Composed principally of fat and water, the brain’s billions of cells, or neurons, require fats, protein and complex carbohydrates as well as micronutrients, for instance B vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and pantothetic acid and minerals such as magnesium, iron and manganese. Energy, generated from food, regulates the growth and change of the cells. There have been many studies over the past ten years on the influence of diet on mental function in young people. For instance, recent research by the Human Appetite Research Unit at the University of Leeds shows that habitual breakfast eating and school breakfast programmes have a positive effect on children’s academic performance, with the clearest effects being measured on the mathematical and arithmetic grades of undernourished children. According to the report, children who skip breakfast have more difficulty focussing on classroom tasks and concentrating in class, which is apparent in both well and undernourished children and children from deprived backgrounds.(1)

Carbohydrate

Most sports practitioners will agree that carbohydrate, converted into blood glucose, or glycogen, and used for energy or stored in the liver and muscle, is the principle source of energy for their sport. Glycogen stored in the muscle is used to fuel the muscles; glycogen stored in the liver is used to maintain steady blood glucose levels for the body and brain.

Using the concept of the glycaemic index, (G.I.) a measurement which measures the speed at which glucose is digested into the bloodstream, we can manipulate the carbohydrate we eat to sustain our energy levels, concentration and focus.

Students who consume high G.I. foods for breakfast, for instance, sugary cereals, sugary fizzy drinks, doughnuts, which are rapidly digested into the bloodstream, will have a burst of energy followed by a mid-morning slump. This can lead to fidgeting, lack of concentration, headaches or drowsiness. The student will then often consume more sugary foods to boost their energy, thus continuing the cycle.

Meals and snacks containing complex, lower G.I. carbohydrates, such as whole grain cereals, oats, wholemeal bread, fruits and starchy vegetables are richer in nutrients, containing more fibre, which slows down the absorption of the carbohydrate, as well as micronutrients vital to healthy brain function, such as B vitamins and vitamin E. Commonly eaten by sports practitioners, these carbohydrates release glucose into the bloodstream more gradually and will therefore provide more sustained levels of energy, concentration and focus.

Protein

The speed at which carbohydrate is absorbed into the bloodstream can be further reduced if eaten with protein. In sport, a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio is often cited as the ideal combination for sustaining energy and fuelling the muscles for growth, repair and recovery. For instance, a peanut butter sandwich on wholemeal bread, or a banana and a natural yoghurt. This can be applied to the classroom too. As well as sustaining concentration levels, protein provides amino acids, building blocks that are used to support structures in neurons. Good sources of protein are found in lean meat such as chicken or turkey, fish, eggs, pulses, beans and grains, as well as raw nuts and seeds.

Fat

Fat is an important nutrient for children, particularly those who practice sport on a regular basis. Children need fat to provide essential fatty acids for healthy growth and development, to fuel the muscles, to transport vitamins and proteins around the body, to carry fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K, to promote healthy skin and nerve function and to manufacture important hormones. However, the majority of fat they eat should come from unsaturated fats, found in avocados, oily fish, nuts and seeds and cold-pressed vegetable oils, rather than saturated fats, the fats found in processed meats, cream, and hydrogenated vegetable oils (transfats, found in processed cakes and pastries).

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