The Learning Brain
- Diet affects brain function and cognition whilst brain is maturing
- Junk food diets may lead to increased hyperactivity
- Dietary components such as fish oils and iron are thought to improve brain function
What we eat affects our bodies, both in the short term and over months or years. It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that diet may also affect brain function and cognition, especially while the brain is still maturing.
In the UK poverty is a major risk factor for poor nutrition; with consequences for children’s health and development.1 Campaigners have argued that school food should be made healthier primarily in order to reduce child obesity. Excess weight however, with its raised risk of disease, may not be the only damage inflicted by poor diet.
Research suggests that high junk food diets in children can lead to increased hyperactivity levels in future years. As ADHD is a major contributor to poor educational outcomes, improving diets to reduce levels of hyperactivity in schools could also lead to improved learning outcomes.
Iron supplements may help improve attention and concentration in children and in those that have anaemia, IQ scores may also improve.
High dietary consumption of the omega-3s found in fish oils in early life may have long-lasting positive effects on cognition. Fatty acid and multivitamin supplements have been found to improve attentional and behaviour problems in school children, as well as illness and attendance rates.
The science at present is enough to suggest that diet may have a considerable impact not only on children’s bodies, but on their ability to learn and to handle the attentional and behavioural demands of a modern school environment. Given the highly competitive, exam-driven nature of both schools and the workplace thereafter, children need all the help they can get to succeed. Compared with the other ways our society deals with educational failure, dietary interventions are cheap, simple and have few side-effects. If they can assist with learning, be it only by enabling the child to focus on work for longer, they are worth considering.