The summer holidays gave our children a break from their academic duties, rigorous schedules, and some times, the rules strictly followed throughout the school year - including what they eat.
Foods that are often banned from the dinner table during the year are acceptable throughout the hot months on trips to the park, the cinema or at the beach. Ice cream, popcorn, pizza and chocolate all appear on the menu. But come autumn and the return to school, healthy routines are re-introduced: early bed times, nutritional breakfasts, and a limit on sweets.
Good nutrition contributes to healthy growth and development, as well as to chronic disease prevention. It promotes positive behaviour among children and impacts concentration and learning abilities. Studies have also shown that wholesome eating habits improve performance on standardized tests and overall grades. Conversely, the consumption of less healthy foods has been associated with poorer achievement in language and math-related subjects.
When students do not have a balanced diet, they may miss out on important nutrients such as iron and long chain omega-3 fats according to the British Nutrition Foundation. These are needed to support optimal cognitive functioning.
Iron deficiency, especially when severe enough to cause anaemia, can lead to poor comprehension skills, shortened attention span, fatigue, and lower test scores. Children who follow diets that lack vegetables, quality meats, eggs and pulses may be particularly at risk for anaemia. The condition can also be more prominent in those that follow vegetarian or vegan diets, as well as teenage girls, who adopt faddy eating habits in an attempt to control their weight.
There is abundant evidence that connects the intake of omega-3 fats, particularly DHA (docosahexaenoic acid),, to a child's ability to focus. A recent survey of parents commissioned by DSM Nutritional Products found that approximately two thirds of parents were concerned about their child's ability to concentrate at school and agreed that there was room for improvement.
However, a similar number also admitted that their children did not consume the recommended intake of oily fish, despite this being a key source for this type of fat. Furthermore, almost 70% of parents questioned did not offer a supplement as an alternative source of these valuable nutrients.
One large study conducted in children living in Oxfordshire found that low levels of DHA omega-3 found in oily fish and algae, were associated with worse performance on reading tests and working memory, and more symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Blood concentrations of DHA in school-aged children in the UK have been found to be well below the levels expected to promote good health. This low blood concentration has been linked to children's dietary habits. Studies have revealed that almost 9 in 10 children fail to meet current UK dietary guidelines of eating 2 portions of fish per week, one of which should be of the oily-type.
DHA omega-3s is a critical nutrient but is at suboptimal levels in the diet of many children and adults in the UK. In addition to their importance for cardiovascular health and immune function, the long chain omega-3s are needed for normal brain structure and brain function. So, it is a concern that they are not included in diets in sufficient amounts.
Different options, however, are available for incorporating the optimal amount of long chain omega-3s into a diet. This includes functional foods or supplements or oily fish like salmon and mackerel, as well as seafood. In cases where increasing fish consumption is not an option, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can offer a good alternative.