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Diet, Exercise, and Your Kid's Grades

By Steve Edwards
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There's a lot more you can do for your kid's education than locking him or her in a bulletproof SUV and waiting in a smog-choked line of other SUVs to drop him or her off at the school steps. Teaching proper eating habits and providing time for exercise will do more for your child's potential to excel than anything else.

Kids

Unfortunately, you may not get support from your school in these matters. Lack of funding and programs like the ill-named "No Child Left Behind" are making it more and more difficult for your kid to eat well and exercise properly at school, rendering your parenting decisions more vital than ever before.

Exercise

A growing body needs exercise to develop properly. There's no science to dispute this, yet schools have begun to cut PE classes. This not only makes it harder for children to concentrate on classwork during the day, but it's a leading cause in the childhood obesity epidemic that's sweeping the nation. "Over the last 25 years, caloric intake in toddlers and young kids has gone up three or four percent, but the level of physical activity has dropped nearly 20 percent to 25 percent," says Ken Reed, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Physical Education.

Girls BowlingWhen I was in school, I had five recess periods, and my memories are of swarms of kids charging all over our exercise fields. In a survey of parents, I found that most kids had three or less periods of PE these days. Plus, it's becoming increasingly rare to walk to school, something that provided me and most of my classmates hours of random muscle-building, calorie-burning activity 5 days per week.While there are plenty of studies that show the connection between physical fitness and academic performance, it's still a challenge for school administrators who feel they must focus on academics. One researcher, Dr. John Ratey of Harvard, does brain research on physical fitness and calls physical activity "miracle growth for the brain." Despite this, it's still an uphill battle.

"The situation isn't good and it's getting worse," says Reed. "Physical activity levels have dropped dramatically in the last 25 years and we believe there's a direct link there to childhood obesity, as well as a dramatic increase in type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol levels in children. It's primarily because of budget problems in schools. Also, the focus is on the educational assessment test that almost every state has due to No Child Left Behind and other factors. It's become the scorecard for administrators and teachers. The focus is on reading, writing, and arithmetic. Parents are also picking up on the state assessment scores as their scorecards on how their school's doing, so they put more pressure on schools to focus on those areas. Something's got to give, and it's usually PE, music, and art classes."

Diet

Then there's your child's diet to consider, which most likely won't be improved at school. According to statistics cited in Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, the worst-quality food goes to fast food restaurants, schools, and pets, in that order—a pretty scary thought when we consider that fast food restaurants and the school cafeteria make up a large percentage of what is forming the dietary pattern of our future generation.

SaladIt's easy to see the food/performance relationship in schoolkids. One example, Appleton Central Alternative High School in Appleton, Wisconsin, implemented a health-food program in 1997 and saw a dramatic increase in student performance. By removing soda and candy machines, and changing the cafeteria fare from the standard burgers, fries, etc., to salad, veggies, whole-grain breads, fresh water, and healthy recipes, they saw grades go up, truancies go down, and disciplinary matters nearly vanish.

"I don't want to say better than ever, because it's always worked," said dean of students Greg Bretthauer recently, "but we've made minor revisions, based on experience, to improve it. We've incorporated flaxseed and focused on the omega content of foods. Made fresh water even more available. We have monthly fruit smoothie days, and have really worked to incorporate more education about eating away from school—trying to get students to follow through at home. We've found the diet does play a major role in increasing the ability to concentrate."

Adds teacher Mary Bruyette, "If you've been guzzling Mountain Dew and eating chips and you're flying all over the place, I don't think you're going to pick up a whole lot in class. Now I don't have to deal with daily discipline issues; that just isn't a factor here." While there's little doubt that better food would increase scholastic performance, there's also little chance it's going to happen on a wide scale anytime soon. "Our district is so strapped for cash that all they can look at is the bottom line," states Reed Bartlett, a teacher in the Riverside, California school district. So we get cheap, low-quality food, and I don't see it changing anytime soon.

Weird science

It probably doesn't help that there's always a study out there for someone to fall back on and say things like "see, it doesn't matter what the kids eat." Case in point is the infamous "sugar study" that concluded that diet played little to no role in children's behavior.

Since I can say with 100 percent certainty that I've never had a client who wasn't affected by what he or she ate, I'm pretty sure not many people will disagree with me that food can alter the way you feel, which can alter your behavior. Yet according to Steven Pliszka, MD and professor of psychiatry at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, "The biggest myth of all is that food has any connection to behavior." Say what?

Boy with Book and AppleAnd there's more where that came from. Wesley Burks, MD, professor and chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at Duke University Medical Center states, "There haven't been any good scientific studies that show that there is an adverse effect on a child or adult's behavior chronically with the ingestion of foods." Perhaps not, but there's at least one school with thousands of real-world examples of diet playing a major role on behavior. In fact, the Appleton school tried an experiment where they served nothing but sugar-laced foods, caffeinated beverages, foods prepared with palm oils, etc., like "normal schoolkids get," and it had a significant effect. According to Bretthauer, "They ran around like hyped-up squirrels, felt sick, couldn't seem to concentrate. 'Pleeease,' they said. 'Don't have another one.'"

Scary science

Your kid has a lower life expectancy than you, which is one of the most alarming statistics I've seen recently, if not in my lifetime. And that's the big-picture stuff. On a smaller scale, we see studies on the negative effects of many things associated with the daily lives of children.

Kids are drawn to bright colors, so marketers love to change the way food looks—just look at any chain restaurant's kid menu for examples. Yet eating foods with artificial colors and preservatives can cause negative behavior changes in children, according to a recent study published in the Archives of Diseases in Childhood. And that's just one. In a new review of two dozen scientific studies, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) contends that food dyes and certain foods can adversely affect children's behavior. CSPI, in a 32-page report titled "Diet, ADHD, and Behavior," charges that federal agencies, professional organizations, and the food industry ignore the growing evidence that diet affects behavior.

And with researchers like Mina Dulcan, MD, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, it's hard to argue. She states, "The bottom line is that too much artificial food stuff isn't good for you, but I don't think you can believe that it's going to hurt your child's behavior or learning very much." Yet in order for her statement to make sense, we would have to conclude that nothing you eat makes any difference in how your body responds. We know this to be false, making this statement—from a prominently credentialed professional—unequivocal nonsense.

It makes a lot more sense to listen to Reed, who states, "The country's decline in fitness levels, of adults and children, is negatively impacting productivity. This generation of kids is the first in 100 years to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. Fitness levels, as well as health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure, are much worse trend-wise than we've ever seen with teenagers and young children. The economic cost just in terms of health care costs is going to be dramatic. Then, when you factor in the loss in productivity, it's really going to be dramatic for our country if it's not turned around." What can you do?

Mother and Daughter SwimmingPlenty. This isn't a red tape or lawmaker's issue. While those are factors, you are still the primary influence on your child's health. For one, make sure your child has plenty of opportunities to exercise. The upside to the decline of PE is the availability of affordable extracurricular sporting activities. While your doctor may tell you that you can exist on 30 minutes of exercise three times per week, that ain't going to cut if for a healthy child. Kids need exercise and movement, and a lot of it.

Get 'em out there. "Even with the diets kids are getting in schools, if the kids were more active, they'd be better off," says Reed. But you're also a major contributor to your child's diet, which begins at home. If your school won't provide healthy meals, go on strike and utilize a lunch box. And remember that schools, both public and private, respond to public demand. Politicians do too. Just because school menus are dismal, and schools are cutting PE and losing funding doesn't mean this is the way of the future. If enough people demand that it changes then it will.

Also, lobby government agencies and politicians. We live in a democracy. Take advantage of your rights.

"The Department of Health and Human Services should withdraw its printed and Internet documents that largely dismiss the effect of food ingredients on behavior. For starters, the FDA should halt distribution of a pamphlet on food additives that it co-published with an industry group, the International Food Information Council," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of CSPI. "It's high time that the government—as well as doctors—provided the public with accurate information that might help many children."

The solution is for each one of us to keep trying. One person can—and always has—made a difference. Because one turns into two, which turns into three, and pretty soon you have an army on your side demanding change. "If we could just get the soccer mom phenomenon working on physical education, we could rally parents and that would be a great advantage," says Reed.

Related Articles
"We Are What We Eat"
"Just Say No to Dodgeball (Curing Childhood Obesity, Part I)"
"Just Say No to Dodgeball (Curing Childhood Obesity, Part II)"

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