Nutrients from quality foods are critical in helping your child reach his or her fullest potential. Unfortunately, many kids are not getting the nutrients they need, especially in the US where nearly 40 percent of children's diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats.1
Only 21 percent of youth aged 6-19 eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
This is a recipe for chronic poor health, and is a primary reason why many of today's kids are arguably heavier and more disease-ridden than previous generations.
As of 2011, over 17 percent of American children between the ages of two and 19 were obese,2,3 and nearly six percent of youths met criteria for class 2 obesity, classified as having a BMI greater than 120 percent of the 95th percentile (or a BMI of 35).
More than two percent of children fell in the class 3 obesity category, indicating they had a BMI of 40 or greater. Such extreme obesity during youth can really set you up for a lifetime of very serious health problems.
Diseases that once appeared only in middle-age and beyond, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and even liver disease are now prevalent among our youth. A junk-food diet can also set the stage for asthma, eczema, and a variety of allergies, inflammatory conditions and autoimmune diseases.
In fact, most of the leading diseases plaguing the US are diet-related. Even the conservative National Institutes of Health (NIH) admits that four of the six leading causes of death in the US are linked to unhealthy diets.
Fast Food Diet Slows Learning and Reduces IQ
Whether or not your child is putting on excess weight, it’s important to consider what a steady diet of processed food might do to his or her health—and IQ... One British study4 revealed that kids who ate a predominantly processed food diet at age three had lower IQ scores at age 8.5.
For each measured increase in processed foods, participants had a 1.67-point decrease in IQ. More recently, research published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics5,6,7 warns that frequent fast food consumption may stunt your child’s academic performance.
A total of 11,740 students were included in the study. All were tested in math, reading, and science while in fifth and eighth grade. As fifth-graders, they also completed a food survey.
More than half reported eating fast food between one and three times per week; 10 percent ate it four to six times a week, and another 10 percent reported eating fast food daily. As reported by PBS News:8
“Children who reported eating fastfood four times a week or more in the fifth grade showed lower test score gains in the eighth grade in all three subject areas by up to 20 percent.
Children who reported eating fast food just one to three times a week still lagged behind their non-fast food eating peers in one subject–math.”
While the study cannot prove causation, the results remained the same even when the researchers controlled for confounding factors such as the school quality, socioeconomic status, exercise frequency, and amount of television viewing.
Parents would certainly be well advised to pay heed, as you do not need to be a rocket scientist to realize that poor nutrition will ultimately have an adverse effect on performance—both physical and mental.
Nutritional deficiencies early on in life can also lead to deficits in brain function that puts your child at risk of behavioral problems -- from hyperactivity to aggression -- that can last into the teenage years and beyond. According to the lead author:9
“There’s a lot of evidence that fast food consumption is linked to childhood obesity, but the problems don’t end there. Relying too much on fast food could hurt how well children do in the classroom...
We’re not saying that parents should never feed their children fast food, but these results suggest fast food consumption should be limited as much as possible.”
Why Are So Many Kids Raised on Fast Food?
As noted by the authors of this study, many parents fall into the habit of feeding their kids fast food on a regular basis because they lack the time and/or knowledge to cook healthy meals. In addition, fast food also tends to be inexpensive, which is another driving factor for its popularity.
In one 2012 study,10 a 10 percent increase in the price of fast food led to a 5.7 percent decrease in fast food consumption by fifth graders, so pushing for higher prices may prevent overconsumption and promote a switch to healthier alternatives, the researchers suggest.
They also recommend pulling fast food out of schools, which really should be a no-brainer. In the US, 10 percent of elementary schools, 18 percent of middle schools, and 30 percent of high schools serve fast food in their cafeterias. Fast food restaurants also tend to conglomerate around school zones. Limiting fast food advertising, both in schools and on television, might also have a marked beneficial impact.
Teach Your Kids How to Take Control of Their Health
Unfortunately, even if such solutions were to be agreed upon and implemented, it would take quite a bit of time—time that your child may not have, as her childhood years slip by. I strongly recommend taking matters into your own hands rather than waiting for society to change around you. If fast food and processed food still make up the bulk of you and your family’s meals, you’d be wise to reconsider your eating habits.
My optimal nutrition plan offers a step-by-step guide to feeding your family right, and I encourage you to read through it. You can find even more help in the book I wrote on the subject, Generation XL: Raising Healthy, Intelligent Kids in a High-Tech, Junk-Food World.
Also remember that leading by example is one of the most effective teaching tools there is, which will set your children up to be better equipped to maneuver an increasingly toxic world as they themselves become parents. First and foremost, I believe we need to teach children what “real food” actually is.
Remember, wholesome food is "live" and typically raw food, and the hallmark of live food is the fact that it will wilt and decompose. As a quick overview, here are some of the most important lifestyle strategies you can teach your child that will serve him or her well for the rest of their life, starting with giving themselves a solid foundation for optimal brain function, which can help them ace their academic studies:
•Opt for real food and ditch the processed foods: For a comprehensive guide, see my free optimized nutrition plan. Generally speaking though, you’ll want to focus your diet on whole, ideally organic, unprocessed or minimally processed foods. For the best nutrition and health benefits, you will want to eat a good portion of your food raw.
•Trade refined sugar and processed fructose for healthy fat: All forms of sugar have toxic effects when consumed in excess, and drive multiple disease processes in your body, not the least of which is insulin resistance, a major cause of chronic disease and accelerated aging. I believe the two primary keys for optimal health are severely restricting non-vegetable carbohydrates in your diet, and increasing healthy fat consumption. This will optimize insulin and leptin levels, which is key for maintaining a healthy weight and optimal health. Healthy fat is particularly important for optimal brain function and memory. This is true throughout life, but especially during childhood. Sources of healthy fats include:
Olives and olive oil Coconuts and coconut oil Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk
Raw nuts, particularly macadamia Organic pastured egg yolks Avocados
Grass-fed meats Palm oil Unheated organic nut oils
•Get plenty of animal-based omega-3 fat: Another healthy fat that is particularly important for brain health is docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, an omega-3 fat. Approximately 60 percent of your brain is composed of fats—25 percent of which is DHA. DHA is also an essential structural ingredient of breast milk, which is believed to be a major reason why breastfed babies consistently score higher on IQ tests than formula-fed babies. Omega-3 fats such as DHA are considered essential because your body cannot produce it, and must get it from your daily diet. I recommend taking an animal-based omega-3 fat such as krill oil on a regular basis, while simultaneously limiting damaged omega-6 fats found in abundance in vegetable oils and processed foods.
•Drink plenty of clean pure water. Avoid all sweetened beverages, including artificially sweetened versions, as artificial sweeteners can wreak havoc on metabolism and brain function.
•Get regular exercise: If your child is struggling in school, you may want to evaluate his level of physical activity and fitness. Researchers have repeatedly found connections between fitness and brain health, which naturally impacts all areas of brain function, such as cognitive thinking skills and memory. (Previous research has also discovered links between physical fitness and mental acuity in seniors, so it's equally important for all age groups.) According to a study from the University of North Texas, having a healthy heart and lungs may actually be one of the most important factors for middle school students to make good grades in math and reading.11 Another review of 14 studies,12 ranging in size from as few as 50 participants to as many as 12,000, also demonstrated that the more physically active schoolchildren are, the better they do academically.
•Maintain a healthy gut: About 80 percent of your immune system resides in your gut, and research shows that your microbiome (beneficial bacteria residing in your gut) affects your health in a myriad of ways; it’s even thought to hold the key to brain health. In a very real sense, your gut acts as a "second brain." Gut bacteria transmit information to your brain via the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve that runs from your brain stem into your enteric nervous system (the nervous system of your gastrointestinal tract).
There is a close connection between abnormal gut flora and abnormal brain development, and just as you have neurons in your brain, you also have neurons in your gut -- including neurons that produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is also found in your brain and is linked to mood. Quite simply, your gut health can impact your brain function, psyche, and behavior, as they are interconnected and interdependent in a number of different ways. A healthy unprocessed diet is the ideal way to maintain a healthy gut, and regularly consuming traditionally fermented foods is the easiest, most cost effective way to ensure optimal gut flora.
•Optimize your vitamin D levels: Activated vitamin D receptors increase nerve growth in your brain, and researchers have also located metabolic pathways for vitamin D in the hippocampus and cerebellum of the brain, areas that are involved in planning, processing of information, and the formation of new memories. The National Institutes of Mental Health recently concluded that it is vital that the mother get enough vitamin D while pregnant in order for the baby's brain to develop properly.
The child must also get enough vitamin D after birth for "normal" brain functioning. Appropriate sun exposure is all it takes to keep your levels where they need to be for healthy brain function. If this is not an option, a safe tanning bed is the next best alternative, followed by a vitamin D3 supplement. (When opting for a supplement, also remember you need to increase your intake of vitamin K2 and magnesium.)
•Avoid as many chemicals, toxins, and pollutants as possible: This includes tossing out your toxic household cleaners, soaps, personal hygiene products, air fresheners, bug sprays, lawn pesticides, and insecticides, just to name a few, and replacing them with non-toxic alternatives.
•Get plenty of high quality sleep: Lack of sleep can hinder metabolism and hormone production in a way that is similar to the effects of aging and the early stages of diabetes, and is known to have an adverse effect on brain health. Sleep is also imperative for reaching new mental insights and being able to see new creative solutions to old problems. Sleep helps "reset" your brain to look at problems from a different perspective, which is crucial to creativity.
Furthermore, certain forms of long-term potentiation—a neural process associated with the laying down of learning and memory—can be elicited in sleep, suggesting synaptic connections are strengthened while you slumber. This holds true for infants and young children too, and research13 shows that naps can boost a child’s brainpower. Specifically, infants who slept in between learning and testing sessions had a better ability to recognize patterns in new information, which signals an important change in memory that plays an essential role in cognitive development.