You’ve had your child assessed for learning disabilities. Therapist after therapist has told you that there is no underlying reason why your child is struggling with maths, english and everything in between. During the assessment there is no evidence of dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyslexia or ADHD1. And yet, the comments on his report at the end of every term paint a different picture:

“Tommy needs to work harder. He is falling behind in class.”
“Suzy spends most of the lesson staring out the window. She needs to pay more attention in class.”
“Robin often misses the point and fails to filter out the information from a piece of text. Comprehension skills need to be worked on.”

As a mother, you are willing to do anything to help your child succeed. But, where do you turn now?

COULD POOR NUTRITION BE CAUSING LEARNING DIFFICULTIES?

The HELENA (Healthy Lifestyle in Europe by Nutrition in Adolescents) study, published in Advances in Nutrition in September 2014, helped to shed some light on the nutritional status of teens2.

The study found that only half of all teens eat breakfast. They only eat half the amount of recommended fruit and vegetables and less than two thirds of the recommended intake for dairy products2.

Meat, fats and sweets tend to be eaten in excess. The study highlighted the fact that many teens are drinking their calories in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, sweetened milk, low-fat milk and fruit juice2.

Learning problem or poor nutrition article

THE SECRETS OF A HEALTHY BREAKFAST

If your teen would rather get an extra ten minutes of sleep in the morning instead of eating breakfast, he is not alone. But it is not only his health that will be affected. The lack of energy and nutrients may make it much more difficult to pay attention and do good work in the classroom3. He fiddles and squirms, struggles to concentrate and stay awake.

Break finally arrives and your tired, hungry teen heads for the tuckshop. While your school tuckshop makes an effort to sell healthy food, the kids would rather buy foods with low nutritional value. Unfortunately these foods also tend to be high in sugar, sodium, fat and calories. Setting your child up for a blood sugar roller coaster over the next few periods4.

If your child doesn’t have sport after school, he comes home and eats whatever you have available for him at home. But you are busy, so there is a good chance he will just grab a quick bread roll with some ham and cheese. If he does have to stay late, he will just skip lunch, or hit the tuckshop again.

Finally, after a long day, the family sits down to the evening meal. If we look at the worst case scenario, this meal consists of take out from the local burger shop. A cheeseburger and a large portion of fries5.

HOW TO ENCOURAGE HEALTHIER EATING HABITS FOR YOUR TEEN

A study published in Nutrients in 2020 found that the meals families eat together have a marked impact on the dietary choices and nutritional status of adolescents. If the example set by the family is poor, your teen will follow suit and choose less nutritious foods outside the home5.

That means that moms influence their children’s nutritional status. And if nutritional status has an impact on learning abilities, then moms can indeed make a difference in the classroom.

Children learn their eating behaviours and preferences from their parents and their peers. Your food choices determine what your child will eat while living with you and to a large extent when he leaves home too. So, the first step to improve your teen’s eating habits is to set a good example6

Your child will eat food that is readily available to him. If you stock your pantry with convenience foods, that is what your child will eat. If you make sure there is plenty of fruit, yoghurt and whole grain bread available, your child will learn to make healthier choices6.

Dieticians recommend that you encourage your child to eat three balanced meals per day, with snacks in between if they need a top up. Using the plate model, you are aiming to eat a plate that is half full of veggies, a quarter starch and a quarter protein. This ensures they are consuming all the energy they need as well as all of the nutrition.

Balance your meal for diet

WHAT DOES A HEALTHY MEAL PATTERN LOOK LIKE FOR YOUR TEEN?

Always start with a healthy breakfast. Make sure that both you and your teen have enough time in the morning to fill up on healthful, energy sustaining food. Start with a piece of fruit. If you have time for a cooked breakfast, include some whole grain toast, an egg or two and some grilled tomato. If you need a quicker option, choose breakfast cereals that are minimally processed and not loaded with sugar. If even that is a stretch, you may consider some of the quick breakfast recipes on the Bioteen recipe page to help optimise mental performance.

By the time break rolls around, the energy your teen ate for breakfast has been used up. Pack a healthy lunchbox for him to take to school. Make sure to include fruit, vegetables (such as carrot sticks or cherry tomatoes), protein (meat, fish, chicken, legumes, cheese or eggs), some whole grain carbohydrates and some healthy fats (avo, olive oil dressing or hummus). Remember that your teen is growing and maturing. His energy and nutrient requirements are high.

The after school meal can also be a struggle. If your child stays after school for extra murals, pack a bit more into his lunchbox. If he comes home for lunch, make sure that there are healthy foods for him to choose from. Leftovers from the night before are always a great option. 

And then set the stage for health and classroom success when you sit down to your family meal in the evening. The power is in your hands Mom! It is always possible to put a balanced meal on the plate, even if you need to use convenience foods to do it. Use frozen veggies if you don’t have time to prepare fresh ones. Buy a rotisserie chicken on your way home from work. It also helps if you encourage your child to help in the kitchen. They learn how to eat well. And as a bonus, they may even learn how to cook.

CONCLUSION

Having a good look at your teen’s diet may be the answer to seeing improvements in the classroom. Poor nutrition can look like a learning problem. The power is in Mom’s hands. If she makes sure her child eats well, she may just be rewarded with classroom success. All moms want their children to succeed.

REFERENCES

  1. Types of Learning Disabilities – Learning Disabilities Association of America [Internet]. Ldaamerica.org. 2021 [cited 6 July 2021]. Available from: https://ldaamerica.org/types-of-learning-disabilities/
  1. Moreno L, Gottrand F, Huybrechts I, Ruiz J, González-Gross M, DeHenauw S. Nutrition and Lifestyle in European Adolescents: The HELENA (Healthy Lifestyle in Europe by Nutrition in Adolescence) Study. Advances in Nutrition. 2014;5(5):615S-623S. (PubMed)
  2. Kim K, Hong S, Yun S, Ryou H, Lee S, Kim M. The effect of a healthy school tuck shop program on the access of students to healthy foods. Nutrition Research and Practice. 2012;6(2):138. (PubMed)
  3. Overcash F, Davey C, Zhang Y, Reicks M. Evening Meal Types and Family Meal Characteristics: Associations with Demographic Characteristics and Food Intake among Adolescents. Nutrients. 2020;12(4):886. (PubMed)
  4. Scaglioni S, De Cosmi V, Ciappolino V, Parazzini F, Brambilla P, Agostoni C. Factors Influencing Children’s Eating Behaviours. Nutrients. 2018;10(6):706. (PubMed)