One of the most important decisions we make on any given day is how we fuel our bodies. It’s a choice we face three times a day, and its effects are profound. Our food choices affect more than just the family budget and schedule; what we eat affects the body, the brain, and how they perform. For schools, it’s critical that food options for students provide healthy options that fuel growing bodies and developing minds.
THE IMPACT OF FOOD
We all have our favorite food preferences - our likes and dislikes, which can vary widely. Yet, common to all are our brains and bodies, whose performance is directly and immediately impacted by food. The foods we love might not love us quite as much as we love them.
According to an article in Health & Wellness, “Favorites like sweets, cheeseburgers, flavored chips, and soft drinks can give a quick spike in dopamine, but since these choices negatively affect our nutrition and gut health, they have a negative impact on our brain function and mental health. In fact, when it comes to regional diets, the modern western diet is near the bottom of the list for supporting brain function, reducing depression, and improving mood.”1
An article published in the National Library of Medicine by the National Institute of Health indicates that diets of saturated fats negatively affect cognitive processing, like learning and memory. Frontiers for Young Minds spells out how this works.
“A healthy diet can increase the production of new neurons, a process called neurogenesis, the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain. What we eat can also affect the synaptic plasticity, the ability of the connections between neurons to become stronger or weaker over time…Synaptic plasticity is simply a measure of the number of connections between neurons. The more the connections between neurons the better they can communicate, and the better we learn, think, and memorize…The hippocampus and the hypothalamus are the brain areas most affected by brain inflammation caused by a diet high in fats. The hippocampus regulates neurogenesis and memory. The hypothalamus, among other functions, is responsible for the control of body weight…Inflammation in the hippocampus can negatively affect our cognitive abilities, which makes it harder to plan, focus, or remember things. This inflammation can even lead to depression.”2
In short, what we eat can make it harder not only to focus on what we see, read, or hear, but also to retain that information and apply it. Essentially, what we eat affects learning. This is at the very core of education and why investment in a great education has to include investment in great nutritional programs and habits that support learning.
HEALTHY LUNCH, HEALTHY MINDS
As parents, we want our students to be alert and prepared for the school day, not foggy or sleepy during classes after lunch. A nutritious lunch program that supports mental alertness, memory, and cognition is one way to protect the investment in a quality education. Conversely, poor eating habits can undermine that investment. “Kiddie food” often includes items high in saturated fats and carbohydrates. Fast food restaurant menus do not have the important responsibility of helping a young person stay awake and learn in a seven- to eight-hour school day.
Mount Paran Christian School partners with SAGE Dining Services, which offers 90% scratch-made menus full of options for students that support student learning. However, a student's choices can make or break that goal, affecting both academic and physical performance. The endurance necessary for arts and athletic performances also depend on the right balance of protein, grain, and vegetables.
A well-planned, nutritious diet should meet most of an athlete’s or performer’s vitamin and mineral needs and provide enough quality protein to promote muscle growth and repair. Many athletes are overworked and undernourished. SAGE Dining Services provides an unlimited seconds program and a performance stoplight to assist student athletes in their dining selections. Sports nutrition fuels the body to enhance stamina, build strength, and aid in recovery after exercise.
Student-athletes should focus on eating a well-balanced diet that includes quality proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. The macronutrient protein ensures the growth and development of muscles and serves as a fuel source for cells and tissues when needed. Lean cuts of meat, chicken, fish, beans, eggs, and milk are great sources of protein. Athletes should limit or avoid unhealthy saturated fats found in most fast foods. However, healthy fats found in nuts and seeds help with cell growth, brain functioning, and balancing blood sugar.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy needed to perform tasks. Carbohydrates are typically labeled as simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates, especially high fructose corn syrup found in soda and candy, should be limited or eliminated from an athlete's diet. Athletes should eat plenty of complex carbohydrates found in vegetables, whole grain pasta, fruits, brown rice, and oatmeal. Finally, hydration is another key element of performance. Athletes should be drinking 0.5 to 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight to prevent dehydration and fatigue.
Combining a well-balanced diet of lean proteins, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and water will lead to success in the classroom as well as on the field or stage. The aspirations parents and students have to succeed depend in part on eating in a way during the school day that supports that success. Protecting the investment in education has life-long dividends if done well, and the hard work of developing good nutritional habits is worth it.
Julie Ray is the chief financial officer for Mount Paran Christian School, overseeing the school's business functions, including the dining program. Mitch Jordan is the MPCS director of athletics, with programs that focus on strength and conditioning, nutrition, health, and wellness.
To learn more about MPC athletics and the MPC Way, click here.