Nutrition for Academic Success

Beginning with our youngest students in our early childhood classrooms, an emphasis on wholesome and nutritious snacks and meals are a part of our culture. In kindergarten, each day we share a family-style meal with the children helping to prepare the food, set the table, and wash up afterwards. We practice gratitude, intention of preparation, and come to understand the source of our food. Nutritious real food that contributes to our children's well-being and development is essential. We are grateful to have Carla Abate, a DWS parent and community member as well as a certified master nutrition therapist, share her wisdom below for our community on nutrition for academic success.

Nutrition for Academic Success

It’s a constant challenge to prepare lunches for the week and do so with a nutritional mindset. After all, it’s disappointing when lunch boxes return full of quality wasted food. But our children’s learning depends, in part, on the food they eat during the school day. As a parent myself, I too have struggled to keep the dream alive to feed my family well, all while sticking to a budget and time limit, and offering options that my kids will actually eat. It can feel like an exhausting, fruitless effort, but as a nutrition therapist, I am devoted to meeting this challenge and sharing my process with other parents. One of the first steps toward fueling our children wisely, is to understand the role of carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates seem to get a bad reputation these days. However, certain cells like our red blood cells cannot utilize any other energy source. And while low-carb diets such as the ketogenic diet, may have their place therapeutically, in the short-term, growing children need a balance of all of the macronutrients for proper development. Besides, all carbohydrates are not created equally. Rather than focus on eliminating these, we should be examining the quality of the carbohydrates we select.

Blood Sugar Regulation 

Certain foods and food combinations have a greater ability to raise blood sugar than others. While fat and protein do not raise blood sugar as much as carbohydrates do, even different types of carbohydrates have varying effects. The more processed and refined carbohydrates are (think white bread, crackers, cookies and sugary drinks), the faster blood sugar rises, spiking insulin (the hormone that admits sugar into cells for energy), and resulting in excess sugar that will be stored as fat. This is one of the leading mechanisms responsible for the rise in childhood obesity.

When we continually allow blood sugar to soar and crash, we disrupt other hormones such as our stress hormone cortisol. The dramatic blood sugar crash that often follows a high carbohydrate meal, signals the stress response, and corresponding release of cortisol. The chronic stimulation of insulin and cortisol can eventually lead to resistance to these hormones further disrupting other metabolic processes.

While insulin and cortisol resistance are extreme, and often unobservable consequences of eating overly processed and refined carbohydrates, the following are some of the more obvious and relatable consequences likely more familiar to parents:

“Hangry” effect - low blood sugar resulting from simple carbohydrates can produce irritability and moodiness.

Poor concentration - fat and protein are satiating macronutrients that promote the feeling of fullness. When these do not accompany carbohydrates, hunger persists making it difficult to focus on other tasks. Apple slices with nut butter are a great solution.

Constant hunger - when we aren’t eating nutrient-dense foods, our bodies are also not getting the signal that they are nourished and overeating ensues. Nutrient-dense foods provide the right nutrients that communicate with our cells.

Other - Headaches, fatigue, and general lack of well-being. Many other common symptoms can be linked back to poor blood sugar regulation.

Diet and lifestyle recommendations

  • Replace simple carbs with fiber-rich complex carbs such as whole grains, vegetables, and some fruits-fiber slows sugar absorption.
  • Pair carbs with fat and protein at each meal to slow the blood sugar surge. Avocado, coconut, grass-fed butter, nuts and seeds are great sources of healthy fat.
  • Focus on carbs in the form of fresh vegetables that include additional micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols. Many vitamins such as the B vitamins play a role in energy metabolism.
  • Support the microbiome with probiotic and prebiotic-rich foods - many pathogenic strains of bacteria feed on sugar and can be kept in check by introducing beneficial microbes present in fermented foods such as yogurt, miso, and sourdough bread.
  • Get your kids moving - exercise is known to increase insulin sensitivity. Take family bike rides or get your kids involved in sports.

“Start where you are,” the title of one of my favorite books by Pema Chodron on compassion, always rings in my mind when I think about making dietary and lifestyle changes. Remember, my child may be starting with refined cereal, so a subtle shift to whole-grain cereal or maybe oatmeal would be a sensible carb upgrade. On the other hand, your child may already be enjoying whole grains, and is open to incorporating more carbs in the form of veggies (which also supports the microbiome - to be discussed in more detail in upcoming posts), in an omelet for instance.

Remember, carbohydrates in the form of whole foods provide the most nourishment. These typically contain an array of nutrients that interact with one another and function to address more than one biological process. For example, zinc is essential to the formation of active vitamin A, and while it plays a major role in immune regulation, it also participates in insulin synthesis, release, and storage. Additionally, our fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, K and E) require fat for absorption further making the case to balance your macronutrients at every meal.

Take it slow…….you will get there!

About Carla Abate

Carla Abate is a family wellness educator and advocate for the importance of nutrition during the perinatal stages. She is a certified master nutrition therapist (MNT) and postpartum doula. Her experience with pregnancy and entry into motherhood helped inspire what she does today. With motherhood came self-growth, inspiration, and courage. It also brought great challenge forcing her to dive deep into her own wellness journey. Today, it’s Carla's mission to help other mothers (and their families) flourish throughout pregnancy and well beyond.

Find out more at rebelrootsnutrition.com or on instagram @rebelrootsnutrition or contact Carla directly at carla@rebelrootsnutrition.com

References

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetes/in-depth/diabetes-management/art-20047963

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4099943/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3874486/