Your Health

Making the grade

How to eat your way to a successful school year

How to eat your way to a successful school year
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Menu makeover

Food for thought

On the menu

Food and drinks to avoid

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Fall 2009

Kyra McCubbin is careful about what she packs for lunch.

"I'm in the accelerated program, which means I'm taking university-level courses this year," says the 17-year-old Sturgeon Heights High School student. As a result, she tends to favour foods that might give her brain a bit of a boost. On any given day, she will choose from a menu that includes seafood, eggs, pasta and salads - foods that may help give her an edge in the classroom.

Her brother, Scott, is also conscious of what he eats. A student at Bruce Junior High School, the 13-year-old tries to pick foods that may help him excel at his favourite sports - badminton, basketball and soccer. Lift the lid of his lunch box, and you'll find a ham sandwich, an apple, carrots and a juice box. He also likes to pack a cereal bar, which he'll pull out for a mid afternoon snack. "Our coaches talk to us every now and then about what to eat," he says. "I try to pick foods that will help me do well in sports."

The healthy food choices don't stop at lunch. Their mother, Lori McCubbin, makes sure that Kyra, Scott and middle child Spencer, 15, get off to a good start in the morning. The breakfast menu usually consists of cereal, milk, eggs, waffles, yogurt and fruit. And then there is dinner - selections can include meat, vegetables and pasta.

In addition to eating healthy foods, the kids also try to avoid eating less healthy foods. Junk food is limited, although there have been some breakdowns in that department, acknowledges Lori - the boys do have a soft spot for Slurpees. "As they get older, and start to make a little money, they can buy anything they want to eat," she says with a rueful shake of her head. "I'm trying to let them know what good food is now, so they won't fill up on junk when they grow up," she adds.

Bottom line: The McCubbin kids are making good food choices that should help them maintain their overall health and well-being. But can their diet also help them become more successful at school?

The answer, according to Lorna Shaw-Hoeppner, a community nutritionist with the Winnipeg Health Region's ACCESS River East health centre, is yes. An increasing number of studies are indicating that what kids eat can have a positive impact on their grades, as well as their physical and social development - the three main ingredients to a successful school year. Moreover, says Shaw-Hoeppner, studies also show that being undernourished can do just the opposite.

For example, the Children's Lifestyle and School-performance Study (CLASS) in Nova Scotia looked at the performance of 5,000 fifth graders. It found that those with the best diet quality did better, regardless of other factors. They used an index to measure diet quality based on a few things, including adequacy, balance, fruit and vegetable intake. "We demonstrated that above and beyond socioeconomic factors, diet quality is important to academic performance," according to Paul Veugelers, one of the study's authors. With kids of all ages now back at school this fall, that research is providing some food for thought.

When it comes to eating their way to a better school year, the McCubbin kids appear to be nibbling in the right direction, says Shaw-Hoeppner. That's because they're choosing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seafood and pastas - foods that contain protein and carbohydrates that power the body and boost the brain. And they're also avoiding the pitfall of too much junk food, such as chips and pop, which is high in empty calories, salt, sugar and bad fats, which leads to unhealthy bodies and sluggish brains.

Not that there isn't room for improvement. "The McCubbin kids have three food groups in their lunches, but it seems both Scott and Kyra are missing dairy products," notes Shaw-Hoeppner. That's important because kids can significantly increase bone mass during the teen years, and dairy products provide a good source of calcium and Vitamin D, which build strong bones. "They need to consume more dairy," she says.

Shaw-Hoeppner also has a suggestion or two for Scott's lunch menu. "Although ham is a lean deli meat, it is rather high in sodium. It would be best to vary his sandwiches and include un-processed meats such as roast chicken, tuna or salmon. Milk would be a healthier choice than juice, but if juice is selected, orange and pineapple juices have more nutrients than apple juice."

Being successful at school is often defined in terms of academic performance. But physical and social development is also important. Parents want their kids to get good grades, but children and youth also need to take an interest in physical activity that will keep them healthy throughout life, and they also need to be able to get along well with others, says Shaw-Hoeppner. "When a child is well-nourished - not just not hungry, but wellnourished - they feel better about themselves, and when they feel better, they do better," says Shaw-Hoeppner.

There are certain foods that seem to help the brain and there are certain foods that provide energy to keep you going through the day. And of course, there are some foods that affect your mood, which can have an impact on how you interact with other kids and teachers. The best way to maximize your potential is to develop a meal plan based on a balanced diet, one that can provide the nutrients required to power the body, mind and soul. And the best place to start doing that is Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide, long considered to be the bible of healthy eating.

For example, the guide recommends young children eat five servings of fruit and vegetables, four servings of grain products, two servings of milk and alternatives and one of meat or a meat alternate every day. Small children have small tummies, so smaller, more frequent meals and snacks can be eaten throughout the day. Teenagers, meanwhile, need between seven and eight servings of fruit and vegetables, six servings of grain products, three to four servings of milk and alternatives and two or three servings of meat or a meat alternate, such as beans, lentils or eggs.

While there is no magic food that can turn a child or teen into a genius or star athlete overnight, research suggests that a steady diet of certain foods will enhance cognitive skills, increase energy and improve your mood.

And while eating a balanced diet is key, knowing which foods do what is never a bad thing. Some of the most intriguing research into how food affects the body is being done by Dr. Carol Greenwood, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. Her work focuses on the relationship between diet and brain function, with specific interest in cognitive function.

According to Greenwood and others, the brain consumes nutrients faster than any other organ in the body, which means it must be properly fed in order to function at full capacity. That means the brain must receive a steady supply of energy in the form of glucose, which is derived from the digestion of carbohydrates in foods such as rice, potatoes, pasta,
grains, fruits and certain vegetables.

"The brain's neuro membrane is a highly charged electrical field, which requires a lot of energy to sustain it," says Greenwood. "In order to function, you must make sure the brain has a steady supply of glucose. If you are dieting or what you are eating is lacking in complex carbohydrates, which are the source of glucose, then you are starving your brain along with your body."

Another important source of nutrients for the brain comes from cold-water fish. "The long-chain fatty acids found in fish support brain metabolism beautifully, so the old adage about fish being brain food is correct," Greenwood says. Indeed, Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide recommends at least two servings of fish per week. "There are alternates, such as omega-3 in eggs, flax and linseed, but they have shorter-chain fatty acids which the body does not process as well.

Shaw-Hoeppner agrees that eating foods with long-chain fatty acids, such as wild salmon, sardines, rainbow trout and mackerel, have important health benefits, "(But) you need to eat these regularly, not just before a test," she says.

The brain's processes and neuro pathways also require a steady supply of vitamins A, C, E and B, and minerals such as zinc, magnesium and iron. Water is also important for keeping the brain hydrated.

Of course, some foods can drain the brain. Colas and juices with excess sugar, refined white bread and processed snack foods and luncheon meats, and food with partially hydrogenated oils are among the main culprits. Greenwood cites one study that found that rats with high intakes of fat experienced loss in learning ability and memory.

In addition to keeping the brain functioning at full capacity, it is also important for young people to keep up their energy and strength. The school years are a time when kids can develop an interest in sports and other physical activities, such as dance. Participating in these kinds of activities will help develop a life-long interest in being active and promote social interaction. In order to enjoy physical activities, however, one has to have the energy to do them, and that can only be provided through healthy eating, says Shaw-Hoeppner.

Slow-burning complex carbohydrates such as whole-grain oatmeal, calcium-rich yogurt, blueberries full of antioxidants and vitamin C, sweet potatoes with vitamin A, lean chicken with protein and iron, plus salmon and its omega-3 fatty acids all promote overall health, which is necessary for optimum performance.

Athletes should eat around their sport, starting with a small snack two to three hours before a practice or game kick-off. This should consist of mostly carbohydrates, such as yogurt, a bagel and fruit, cereal, milk and a banana, or cheese and crackers. About 15 to 30 minutes after exercise, athletes should have a snack that is mostly carbohydrate, with a small amount of protein, like chocolate milk or nuts and juice to replenish their glycogen stores and help speed recovery. Two to four hours later, depending on the time of day, they should follow up with a balanced meal.

Fluids are an important part of being athletic, but sports drinks are generally not needed unless the activity lasts longer than 45 minutes. Instead, the athlete should drink about 500 mL of water two hours before their game, and another 250 mL 15 minutes before it starts and have gulps of water during the activity. Don't forget to replenish fluid losses after the activity. Interestingly, Shaw-Hoeppner says that drinking a glass of water will rehydrate your body and refresh your brain as well, so you'll regain alertness and focus without having to resort to caffeine in pop or coffee.

Of course, the importance of a meal cannot always be measured by nutritional values alone.

What really garners an A-plus from schools and dietitians is when families have meals together. Kids who eat with their parents do better in school, have fewer behaviour problems and are less likely to use alcohol, tobacco or drugs. Children learn family values, along with learning to communicate better with adults. The meals also nourish security and feelings of belonging.

"Studies show that children who eat with their family several times a week without the TV on are not only better nourished, they are better-adjusted. This reduces the risk of smoking and drug use, aggressive behaviour, early sexual behaviour and depression," says Shaw-Hoeppner.

Shaw Hoeppner suggests aiming for four or more family meals a week. But if that's not possible, try to eat one meal a week together and add more as you can. Family meals don't just mean dinner; breakfast, lunch and even a midnight snack together can count as well. Adults should involve children in menu planning, shopping for the ingredients and preparing the food. "Kids can be involved in meal preparation from an early age. When you take them to the grocery store, they will be more inclined to try new foods if they help choose them," she says.

Adults should respect their child's right to decide how much to eat, and not force the child to eat new foods. It can take a dozen or more exposures to new food before a child tries it. Adults also should set the tone for the conversations at the table, along with what behaviour is OK and what is not. Turn off the TV and telephone, and talk.

"Get the family dynamics going. Kids who eat with their families do better in school," says Shaw-Hoeppner. "Keep the conversation lines open. Don't talk about your kid's failing math grades at dinner. Save that for a quiet time, and keep meal time pleasant."

Susie Strachan is a Winnipeg writer.

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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