Back to School: Importance of Children’s Nutrition and Health
- Children’s nutrition is strongly associated with immune health, brain function, and academic performance
- 70% of school-aged children are significantly lacking in at least one vitamin or mineral, which can lead to a host of negative health effects
- Dietary supplements can help your child get the essential nutrients they need for cognitive function, immune health, and overall wellness
If you’re the parent of a school-age child, you understand how difficult it is to keep kids healthy, focused, and ready to learn nine months out of the year.
And never has this challenge been more real than today, amidst a lingering pandemic, the usual cast of childhood ailments, and an ever-evolving technological landscape.
To complicate matters further, the heightened nutrient demands of growth and development mean school-aged children are at an increased risk of dietary deficiencies. Indeed, roughly 70% of children in the United States are significantly lacking in at least one essential nutrient, which can have direct effects on their overall health and academic performance.2-4
Fortunately, there are evidence-based nutritional strategies to help support children’s immune health, focus, and energy all year-long.Immune Health: The best offense is a good defense.
Immune Health: The best offense is a good defense.
Children touch everything. In fact, the only thing they do more reliably is then put their everything-covered hands in their mouths. So, what’s a parent to do? Get down to brass tacks and start ramping up their immune systems for the job at hand. One way to do that is with probiotics.
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that, when consumed in adequate amounts, have a beneficial effect on the overall health of the host.5 Amongst other mechanisms, these “good” bacteria are believed to support immune health by:
- stimulating immune functions 6-8
- enhancing the mucosal barrier 5,9,10
- secreting anti-bacterial molecules 11,12
- competing with pathogenic bacteria for nutrients 5,9,10
- inhibiting the colonization of pathogens. 14,15
What’s more, studies show that increasing the supply of “good ” bacteria in your child’s microbiome can help them bring home that prestigious “perfect attendance” award. Indeed, incorporating probiotics into a child’s diet via foods or supplements can:
- reduce the numbers of days absent from daycare and school 16-18
- decrease the duration of cold and flu-like symptoms 17,18
- prevent the need for antibiotic treatments 18
- reduce the incidence of allergies and skin dysfunctions. 19
Although serious side effects are rare, it is recommended that you talk to your child’s pediatrician before starting a probiotic regimen.20 Also, because different probiotic strains have different clinical effects and safety profiles, it’s a good idea to also ask your pediatrician about specific strains they would recommend for your child.
Vitamins and Minerals
Another way to help fortify your child’s immune system is by ensuring they receive the micronutrients they need for proper immune function. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that the body requires in small amounts to sustain overall health.
Vitamins A, C, D, B6, and B12, E folate, zinc, magnesium, and selenium play vital, and often synergistic roles at every stage of the immune response.
Amongst other mechanisms, these micronutrients:
- protect immune cells via antioxidant mechanisms,
- promote cellular processes of innate immunity, and
- support the structural and functional integrity of physicals barriers (e.g., the skin, mucus membranes) that help prevent entry into the body.21
But that’s not all. In addition to immune health, essential vitamins and minerals play important roles in energy production, cognitive function, and brain health. In fact, a deficiency in any one micronutrient can lead to:
- physical, developmental, and cognitive impairments 22-24
- decreased educational attainment 22,23
- increased susceptibility to infection 25-27 and
- higher rates of mortality and morbidity. 25
Children are at increased risk of micronutrient deficiencies.
Although getting nutrition from food is the gold standard, an advantage to vitamin and mineral supplements is that they are easy to consume. This makes them especially helpful for children, whose picky taste buds and small appetites mean many don’t meet the daily recommendations for vitamins A, C, D, and E and minerals such as calcium and magnesium. 28,29
Our advice? Provide your child with a variety of nutritious foods whenever possible, but also consider adding a multivitamin or multimineral supplement that can help fill any nutritional gaps that their diet may be lacking.
Studies shows that school-aged children who consumed either a single or multiple micronutrient supplement were significantly less likely to have nutritional insufficiencies than children who didn’t, and showed improvements in:
- fluid intelligence and academic performance 30
- verbal learning and memory 31
- multiple measures of attention 32
- brain function and neuropsychologic performance 33
Another key factor affecting children’s school performance is cognitive health, including the ability to focus, pay attention, and think effectively. Nowadays, kids only have to turn on their iPads to watch or play essentially whatever they want. Given the infinite number of distractions at children’s fingertips, ensuring they receive the nutrients they need to support attention and cognitive function is more important than ever. Two such nutrients are the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.
Omega-3s play important roles throughout the body as structural components of cell membranes, especially within the nervous system, where they serve as a major component of neuronal cell membranes.34 DHA in particular plays an integral role in cognitive health, such that a higher DHA status has been linked to greater academic performance, attention, and cognitive function across several research studies.2, 34,35
For example, DHA can support overall cognitive function by:
- preserving cell membrane health35
- facilitating communication between brain cells34,35
- increasing brain activation36
- supporting various aspects of learning and memory34-37
Omega-3s have also been shown to support children’s cognitive health through their effects on neurobehavioral functioning. For example, in one research study looking at the effects of omega-3 supplementation on hyperactivity and inattention, school-aged children saw significant improvements in cognitive performance, attention, and hyperactivity after supplementation with EPA and DHA.38
Moreover, a different study conducted with school-aged boys found that supplementing with EPA and DHA led to a significant reduction in symptoms of inattention.39 And importantly, these positive effects were observed in both healthy controls and subjects with a history of inattention, suggesting that EPA and DHA can support attention in childhood more generally.39
Kids today need more than a trapper keeper and some fancy gel pens to keep them healthy, focused, and ready to learn. So, when you’re doing your back-to-school shopping—prioritize your child’s cognitive and physical health by establishing good dietary habits and a supplement routine that can keep them engaged in the classroom all year long.