Four Essential Nutrients for Young Learners
As any parent or teacher knows, kids love to snack. At times it might feel impossible to keep on top of these ravenous appetites—not to mention keeping their minds focused throughout the day. Food is what fuels us, after all, but some fuel burns longer and cleaner than others.
For young learners to get the most out of their studies, their diets should ideally include a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats. Here’s a guide to four crucial nutrients that can help young brains stay focused and energized—as well as where to find them.
Omega-3-6-9 Fatty Acids
Found in nuts, seeds, shellfish and oily fish such as salmon and sardines, these polyunsaturated fats are essential for maintaining focused brain function. These compounds assist in maintaining healthy brain tissue and cell membranes, as well as regulating inflammation throughout the body. In addition, studies show that Omega fatty acids have been shown to assist with mental health, including with anxiety, depression and other mood and personality disorders.
Omega fatty acids are especially crucial, as they cannot be synthesized by the body and therefore must be obtained from outside sources through our diets. And because these compounds are somewhat fragile and easily destroyed by high heat or oxidation, many processed foods may be drained of naturally occurring instances of these nutrients during manufacturing and packaging. It may come as little surprise, then, that many North Americans are deficient in Omega fatty acids, as their sources are both specific and prone to deterioration. For this reason, young learners should supplement their diets with fresh fish, nuts or seeds at least twice a week to reap the benefits of these valuable nutrients.
The primary source of dietary fuel for the mind—and, indeed, the whole body—are carbohydrates, in the form of sugars, or glucose. As the body processes carbohydrates, it converts them into sugars which are then used to power our brains, muscles and everything else.
Unfortunately, not all carbohydrates are created, equal. Monosaccharides, also known as simple sugars, can be broken down very easily and quickly, meaning that the brain receives a short-lived burst of energy followed by a sudden drop-off once the fuel is depleted—think white refined sugar found in sodas, candy and syrups. On the other hand, chemically complex polysaccharides, such as those found in whole grains and legumes or fruit and vegetables, offer a slow and steady burn that can keep our brains going longer and without any unpredictable highs and lows.
For this reason, students will benefit most from a diet rich in these complex sugars that can keep their energy levels and brain functions going strong throughout the day. Try swapping out fibre-rich oats and fruit for breakfast in place of sugary cereals, or combine whole grains, beans and roasted veggies for a powerhouse salad packed with vitamins and polysaccharides.
B-Vitamins, particularly vitamins B-6, B-9 (folate) and B-12, are essential for the brain’s production and efficiency of neurotransmitters—the chemicals which form connections and circulate signals throughout the brain. These functions are closely associated with memory and learning, as these chemicals ensure that information is properly stored and can be easily and instantly accessed by the brain.
Common sources of most B-vitamins include meat, fish, milk and eggs, but are also present in smaller amounts in beans, whole grains and potatoes. Vitamin B-12, however, while often present in fortified grain products, is only naturally present in foods of animal origin, meaning that adherents of vegetarian or vegan diets could consider taking supplements at the discretion of a physician.
A broad category of compounds including Vitamin A, C and E, antioxidants are found in many foods and are essential to preventing cell weakening and degeneration due to oxidation. As our bodies process and metabolize food, they occasionally create byproducts known as “free radicals”: unstable molecules which, if left unchallenged, can weaken and cause harm to our cells—especially in the brain. Antioxidants excel at neutralizing and detoxifying these substances, resulting in healthier cells throughout the body and safeguarding the brain against short- and long-term deterioration.
Because their sources are so varied and complex, research has yet to fully understand antioxidants and their positive effects on the body. However, one thing is clear: foods known to contain antioxidants provide numerous benefits to memory and cognitive function. From the vitamins found in carrots, peppers, citrus and gourds to the valuable flavinoids present in blueberries, grapes, dark cocoa and tea, antioxidants are sprinkled throughout the four food groups and can help young learners strengthen their minds for their exam next week—and for years to come.
This article was written by Daniel Marcotte, a Tutor at Aspire Learning Academy on April 18, 2019.
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