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How does healthy eating influence learning?

Healthy diet for learning
Healthy eating is an important to consider for kids and adults alike. However, the needs and eating habits of teenagers are not exactly the same as those of adults. Like children, they are still in a growth and development phase. Teens who are still in school especially need more energy on a daily basis.

How do you eat well during the school day? And what is the impact of "food trends" - for example, energy drinks, vegetarianism, veganism and dieting - on the health and performance of adolescents? To answer these questions, we conducted a fascinating interview with Dr. Charles Etterlin. Dr. Charles Etterlin is a paediatrician with many years of experience and head of the practice sihldoc4kids in Zurich (Sihlcity).

1. Why is puberty a special phase from a medical point of view?

Puberty, the transition from childhood to adulthood, is a very sensitive time from a medical point of view. A hormonal and physical change takes place, as well as an emotional and psychic change. That is why, as a pediatrician, I would emphasize that puberty is a special phase.

2. Most young people are still in school. What physical and cognitive skills do young people need in their daily school life?

I think that physically, the life of a student isn’t different any other kind of daily life. But cognitively, yes. Young people need to get a good night's sleep and be able to focus and absorb the material they learn at school.

3. How are these skills affected by diet?

Good nutrition is very important for the cognitive development of adolescents. It is also central to their brain development and can positively influence their concentration and ability to learn at school.

The gut microbiome is also very important for brain development. The gut microbiome is the set of microorganisms (including bacteria and viruses) that each person has in their gut. It is now known that the gut microbiome has a direct link with the brain. And the organisms in the gut are of course dependent on what and how we eat.

4. What diet do you recommend to young people in school?

A healthy, balanced diet is the first thing young people need. "Balanced" means that the food contains all the nutrients that the young person needs: carbohydrates, proteins, fats and "micronutrients", i.e. vitamins and minerals. We often hear about iron, omega 3 and vitamin B12. These are important for brain development and cognition. During school, we need these nutrients every day.

A certain regularity in the diet is also important. The brain needs nutrients all the time, especially energy: sugars, vitamins and minerals. They are important not only for brain development, but also for the ability to process information - and therefore to be able to learn at school.

5. Do young people suffer from malnutrition or nutritional deficiencies?

Yes, this happens sometimes. For example, when young people eat an unbalanced diet. This may be because they don't have time to eat properly. Or because they eat processed food rather than fresh (organic) products.

6. Do energy drinks or energy shots help young people to concentrate and perform better?

Most energy drinks contain guarana or caffeine. These substances can clearly help to improve concentration and performance. Not only this, but they produce a placebo effect, so you may also simply have the impression of being able to concentrate better.

What I find very dangerous is the question of sugar. Besides the substances mentioned, energy drinks also contain a lot of energy in the form of sugar. Young people can quickly fall into sugar overconsumption. Sometimes they suffer from diseases as a result of sugar abuse. Therefore, one should be careful when drinking energy drinks just to improve concentration and performance. In my opinion, the negative side of energy drinks prevails.

7. Does being overweight have a negative influence on school performance?

Most of the time, being overweight limits physical performance. But it can have an influence on self-esteem, which can have a negative effect on cognition (concentration, etc.). Being overweight can therefore indirectly influence children’s academic developement.

8. Vegetarianism and veganism are also popular amongst many young people. Can they do as well in school? What do they need to watch out for?

It is important to distinguish between vegetarianism and veganism. There is nothing wrong with a vegetarian diet, as long as it is balanced. It is possible to eat without meat or fish as a teenager. It should not affect your concentration and performance.

Veganism is a little different. This diet is not recommended because it carries a high risk of deficiencies. Vegans often lack protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. If a young person decides to go vegan anyway, they should be aware that they need to be monitored by a doctor. With the help of blood tests and monitoring, the doctor can assess how the deficiencies can be overcome. For example, the doctor may recommend vitamin B12 capsules.

9. At puberty, the body changes. This can lead to a lack of confidence and low self-esteem. This is why many teenagers go on diets or play sports to excess. What should you look out for if you want to succeed in school?

Losing excess weight is possible for young people. However, we do not recommend dieting. The reason is that it is difficult for most young people to eat only certain things and count calories. In my opinion, it wouldn't make sense to try. Instead, we recommend not to eat too much processed food, but rather more organic produce.

Regarding excessive sports: young people who play sports almost every day need more of certain nutrients. For example proteins, calcium and iron. To increase muscle mass, you need more protein, for example. You need to consume additional products rich in protein. Industrial (protein) supplements are strongly discouraged. Uncontrolled amounts of protein, for example, can put the kidneys at risk, especially during growth. The same applies to the over-consumption of (fat-soluble) vitamins. It should be added that young people who practice sports excessively should be followed by a specialist (doctor or dietician).

10. What other dietary advice should be given to young people and their parents?

In children and adolescents, eating is often based on the principle of pleasure. Young people are of course autonomous and can decide for themselves what they want and what they think is the best food. I think that the education of a certain food culture during childhood is very important. It is also a way to get the child (and later the teenager) used to a healthy diet.

For example, water should always be available at the table rather than sugary drinks. Take time to eat and share meals. This is something that a child will carry with them later on in life. These are long-lasting behaviours and offer good protection against high blood sugar.
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