Back to school: How to eat for classroom success

Obesity may affect how well children perform in school.

Boy bites into half of toasted sandwich

Parents may want to make nutrition a priority as kids head back to the classroom.

“Healthy eating is a critical part of a child’s physical and mental development, yet many kids are not getting the nutrition they require,” said Dr. Daniel Howard, ADC pediatrician. “Poor diet combined with inactivity has led to a childhood obesity epidemic in theUnited States.”

ADC Pediatrician Dr. Mara Tache agreed. She stressed the need for children to eat a balanced diet from the time they wake up in the morning.

“Kids must eat breakfast– very important,” Dr. Tache said. “Overall each meal should consist of a lean protein source, a whole grain product and fruit or vegetable.”

Obesity and academics

Rates of obesity in childhood have tripled over the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2011 study of high school students found 13 percent were obese and 15 percent were considered overweight. And a 2008 study found the number of students age 6 to 11 who were obese had increased to nearly 20 percent from 7 percent in 1980.

Obesity in childhood can lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol – both risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Obese youth can also develop pre-diabetes, bone and joint problems and sleep apnea. Emotionally, students who are obese may have social and psychological problems.

“Those with obesity may have problems concentrating in school especially if they have secondary conditions such as sleep apnea, depression and psychosocial issues related to their obesity,” Dr. Tache said.

More research is drawing a connection between physical activity, proper nutrition and academic performance. In fact, a recent study conducted by a University of Missouri researcher drew a connection between weight and math performance.

The study found children who were persistently obese through elementary school did worse on math tests than their peers. Feelings of anxiety, sadness and loneliness explained some of their academic results.

Eat your vegetables

Healthy habits can help combat the growing obesity epidemic, and that includes proper nutrition. Dr. Tache says it is recommended kids get five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Vegetables and fruit are packed with essential vitamins, minerals and fiber, and they help fight against both hunger as well as obesity.

The easiest way to remember how much is to fill half of your plate (or lunchbox!) with vegetables and fruit. Learn more at Choosemyplate.gov.

How to help kids eat more

Lettuce and other vegetables on display in grocery store

You may worry about whether your kids will want to eat the vegetables you serve them, and Dr. Tache acknowledges it can be challenging. But she says — it’s worth the effort.

Here are some ideas:

Have kids help plan menus and go grocery shopping

“My best advice is have them go shopping with you and pick a new vegetable out that they think they would like,” Dr. Tache said. “They will at least be more willing to try a bite.”

Kids who actively participate in making good food choices are more likely to eat better. You can teach kids what fruits and vegetables are seasonally available and how to prepare them.

Try new foods

Instead of eating the same fruits and vegetables all the time, shake things up. Try produce you’ve never eaten before.

Mix veggies into favorite foods

Pizza with peppers, tomatoes and broccoli

Introduce new or more vegetables into soups, casseroles and even pizza! Try toppings like mushrooms, green peppers and onions.

Need some ideas?

Keep veggie and fruit snacks readily available

With a little preparation, you can make sure kids are making healthy choices when they snack.  Baby carrots, cucumber slices and apple wedges are ideas for just a few ready-to-eat right out of the refrigerator.

“Providing a very colorful array of raw veggies with dips is very good,” Dr. Tache said.

Set an example

“Children often learn from their parents,” said Dr. Tache. “If you eat a lot of veggies, they too will be more accepting of them.”

Making meals a family affair is a great way to be a positive model for your kids. Remember, even if they don’t immediately eat more vegetables, you’re laying a foundation of good nutrition your kids will draw on for years to come.