Nutrition to support your children’s learning and help manage stress

I recently spoke at a parent forum run by our local council aimed at giving parents tools to help their children cope with year 12. My own children are only in primary school, but I see the pressure on children to work hard and get good grades, even from an early age.

As parents we can support our children’s growth, development and learning by providing them with good nutrition and by educating them on what is healthy food.

In fact, specific foods and nutrients can improve your child’s:

• Learning, concentration and memory

• Stress response

• Energy

• Sleep

• Immune health

So, why is nutrition important?

Put simply, our body needs key nutrients to function optimally, especially our brain. Our bodies are resilient and can adapt when they need to, but eventually, without sufficient nutrients, we cannot function optimally leading to a range of problems and eventually illness and disease.

The nutritional basics:

Carbohydrates are required for energy, brain function, vitamins, minerals and fibre.

Protein is the building block of bones, muscles, skin and blood. It is essential for a healthy immune system, hormone production, satiety and blood sugar regulation.

Good fats are essential for energy, vitamin absorption, hormone production, good skin, heart health, eye health, learning and cognitive function.

Water is essential for a healthy digestive system, nutrient absorption, energy production, cognition and detoxification.

So, what should we eat?

No matter what culture, style of eating or food philosophy you follow, it is important to ensure you and your family eat:

• More plant based foods – fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains

• Whole foods rather than processed foods

• Foods in season – they have more flavour and nutrients

• A large variety of food types and colours – for a variety of nutrients

• Locally produced food

• Organic or pesticide free fruit and vegetables

• Pasture raised meat and dairy – if you choose to eat animal products

• Drink filtered water – 8 glasses each day

• Don’t diet – just eat real food

Foods to avoid or limit

Limit processed sugar – processed sugar is inflammatory, it depletes essential vitamins and minerals, can be veiled as learning and behavioural disorders and depletes immune and digestive health

  • Limit caffeine and other stimulants

  • Limit soft drinks – they remove calcium from bone and block absorption of nutrients

  • Avoid all energy drinks – they contain ingredients that can be addictive and dangerous for us and especially our children

  • Avoid artificial sweeteners – they are associated with a variety of health issues including diabetes and obesity

  • Limit junk food – it is nutrient void and full of processed sugar, bad fats and chemicals

Help your children be healthy by?

· Providing healthy meals home

· Providing healthy snacks at home

· Ensuring meal times are regular and relaxed

· Eating healthy foods yourselves

· Educating your children on the difference between health food and junk food

· Negotiating junk food consumption

· Ensure they get sufficient relaxation time, exercise and sleep

Brain food

Essential fatty acids (EFAs), especially omega 3’s are extremely important for brain development and function. Learning and behavioral disorders are associated with nutrient deficiency including essential fatty acid.

These fats are called ‘essential’ because our bodies cannot make them, they must come from our food, but many children are deficient.

Food high in omega 3’s include:

• Oily fish – mackerel, sardines, herring and wild salmon

• Raw nuts – Brazil, almonds, cashew, macadamia, walnuts

• Raw seeds - flaxseeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, chai

• Nut and seed cold-pressed oils

Physical exercise and adequate sleep are also essential for brain health, learning and cognitive function.

Stress management

Stress depletes magnesium, calcium and B vitamins. It also impacts digestive health, reduces our immune response and can lead to sleep problems.

Foods to help improve your stress response include:

• Protein – lean meat, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds

• Cashew nuts

• Calcium rich foods – sesame seeds, dairy, green leafy vegetables

• Potassium rich foods – bananas, mushrooms, spinach, beans, avocados

• Green leafy vegetables

• Oily fish

• Dark chocolate – at least 70% cocoa and organic

Adequate sleep and exercise are essential for stress management.

The importance of sleep

Sleep quality and quantity has a direct impact on brain health and cognitive function. This is in part due to the anti-oxidant effect sleep has on the brain.

During sleep growth hormone is secreted. It is responsible for:

• Tissue regeneration and growth

• Liver regeneration

• Muscle building

• The breakdown of fat stores and the conversation of fat to muscle

• Blood sugar regulation

• Sleep

Children need between 8 to 12 hours of sleep per night and children need a sleep routine and this should be maintained and adapted into teens and adulthood.

What impacts sleep?

• Stress

• Caffeine

• Alcohol and other stimulants

• Some medications eg: beta blockers

• Nutrient deficiencies especially magnesium

• Anxiety and depression

• Bright lights – screens

• Eating too late

• Bedroom being too light – Melatonin is only produced in darkness

Foods to help sleep include pineapple, lychees, cherries, bananas, oranges, sweet corn, tomatoes barley and oats.

The stress / sleep cycle

In summary

Supporting your child’s nutrition enhances their cognition as well as their growth and development:

• Offer your children a variety of health food at home

• Educate them on healthy food and encourage them to try new foods

• Educate them on junk food

• Help them establish a good sleep routine

• Ensure they get exercise and sunshine

• Try nutritional supplement and herbal medicine if needed

• Look after your own health, be a great role model

If you have a student struggling with stress, sleep or nutrition, contact to see if a nutrition consultation would be beneficial.