| By Yvette J. Brown
food’s good. If it helps you with your tests – go for it!”
| Teenagers love pizza, soda and potato chips.
But can those junk foods actually boost brainpower?
16-year old Jacinda is a little skeptical.
“Eating junk food before a test? Score higher? I don’t
think that’s true,” she says.
Tiffany, also 16, is also a little unsure.
“I don’t know because I eat junk food all the time before
a big test, like a bag of chips or something, a candy bar,
and my grades seem to be the same,” she says.
But there may be some merit to the junk food theory, according
to University of Florida researchers who looked at eating
patterns for 23 random school districts in Virginia.
The scientists found that students given a high-calorie,
low-nutrition lunch on standardized test days scored 11 percent
higher on math and six percent higher on English and social
studies sections than kids who ate a healthier lunch.
“I’m not surprised at all at the link between eating
and improved test scores,” says Kathleen Zelman, a spokesperson
for the American Dietetic Association.
Zelman says the glucose from carbohydrate rich foods is fuel
to the brain.
“Your brain wants that glucose. It needs the glucose,”
she says. “That’s the fuel to help you think better,
concentrate, sit still and stay focused for that test.”
“I tried [eating junk food before a test] before. It’s
helped me stay awake and start doing better,” says 17-year
All the fat and sugar in junk food, of course, can give a
temporary surge, but Zelman urges balance.
“As a dietician of course, I’d much rather see kids
eat more healthfully,” she says. “But the bottom
line is they need to eat before those tests. Is it better
to have a well-balanced meal with fruits and vegetables and
whole grains and milk? Absolutely!”
But, in a pinch, Zelman says junk food will do just fine.
And that is just fine by 14-year old Elizabeth: “Junk
food’s good. If it helps you with your tests— go for it!”
on Your Child’s School Menu
By Kim Ogletree
CWK Network, Inc.
Serving kids extra calories
at lunchtime appears to be school officials’ latest attempt
at boosting students’ scores on Standards of Learning (SOL)
tests, according to a report released by the National Bureau
of Economic Research. For their study, University of Florida
researchers evaluated school lunch menus from 23 randomly
selected districts in Virginia during the 1999-2000 academic
Schools increased the amount of calories by offering lunch
items high in carbohydrates, which contain glucose, a sugar
known to be effective in temporarily sharpening thinking skills.
Comparing the calorie count in school lunches on days when
fifth-graders were given their SOLs to the calories in meals
given on non-test days, the researchers found that lunches
averaged 761 calories before the testing period, 863 calories
on test days and 745 calories after testing was completed.
The researchers conclude the approach seemed to help test
scores as those schools serving high-calorie lunches reported
higher student pass rates of 11 percent for mathematics, six
percent for English and six percent for social studies.
Is this practice of serving students carbohydrate-heavy lunches
on test days cause for alarm? Not as long as it is done so
in moderation and in conjunction with a well-balanced diet
and exercise, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA). Everyone needs carbohydrates, which the body breaks
down into glucose to power its cells. However, cells can only
use so much glucose at one time. The body stores leftover
glucose – called glycogen – in the cells of the liver and
muscles. Any glycogen that does not fit in those cells is
turned to fat.
It is also important that these lunches rely more heavily
on complex carbohydrates rather than simple carbohydrates.
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) describes sugars as
simple carbohydrates, appropriately named because the body
digests them quickly and easily. While these types of carbohydrates,
found in candy, cookies and soda, provide a quick energy boost,
they often come with lots of fat and a lack of important vitamins
the body needs. Complex carbohydrates, found in breads, cereals
and pasta, take longer to digest but provide the body with
vitamins and minerals. And even the USDA’s Food Pyramid suggests
most calories should come from complex carbohydrates, which
provide energy specifically for the brain.
Parents Need to Know
As a parent, how can you determine whether your child is
eating a healthy school lunch? By law, school lunches must
meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend
no more than 30 percent of an individual’s calories come from
fat, and less than ten percent from saturated fat. Regulations
also establish a standard for school lunches to provide one-third
of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, vitamin
A, vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories.
If your child’s school lunches are lacking in the nutrition
department, the negative health consequences for your child
could be severe. The Center for Weight and Health at the University
of California, Berkley, says that malnutrition can restrict
brain development, resulting in impaired learning and cognitive
function. Consider these additional ways in which nutrition
can affect your child’s body:
- Inadequate diet, nutritional deficiencies and hunger have
been shown to decrease attentiveness, motivation and other
behaviors critical to school performance.
- Deficiencies in specific nutrients, such as iron, have
an immediate effect on the ability to concentrate. In fact,
mild forms of anemia found in an otherwise healthy population
of children have been shown to negatively impact IQ.
- Diet contributes to four of the seven leading causes of
death – heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes – and
increases the risk of numerous other diseases and conditions,
including hypertension, liver disease, osteoporosis, atherosclerosis
(the buildup of fatty substances in the inner lining of
an artery) and obesity.
- Scientific evidence suggests fruit and vegetable intake
alone protect against cancer, heart attack, high blood pressure,
osteoporosis, arthritis, stroke, diabetes, cataracts, asthma,
bronchitis and obesity.
- Healthy eating not only reduces mortality but also improves
quality of life by improving energy and sense of well-being.
While school lunches must meet federal nutrition requirements,
decisions about what specific foods are served and how they
are prepared are left up to individual school food authorities.
Therefore, it is important to get involved with your child’s
school so you can monitor what he or she is eating for lunch.
The U.S. government’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services
Department offers the following advice for checking up on
your child’s school diet:
- Do lunch with your child.
Join them while eating breakfast or lunch at school. See
what the meals are like, and notice the atmosphere. If you
do not like what you see, do something.
- Discuss your principles.
Go to the principal. Discuss the importance of good nutrition
and physical activity. Suggest programs, ask for cooperation
and follow through with your ideas.
- Team up with food service staff.
Visit the school cafeteria and get to know the staff. Let
them know you value their services and appreciate good daily
nutrition for your child.
- Throw a tasting party. Volunteer
to organize a classroom tasting party to introduce and encourage
nutritious new foods students may not have tried.
- Serve your child food for thought.
Make sure they appreciate how healthy breakfasts and lunches
serve their mind as well as their body.
- Talk out of school. Make
your opinions heard. Talk to other parents, and work with
your PTA and school board to support healthy school meals.
You can even form a parent advisory committee for school
- Know what’s for lunch. Get
a weekly menu of school meals. Ask for the nutrition facts
so you can be sure the menu meets the official Dietary Guidelines
for Americans. Keep it magnetized to your refrigerator and
discuss all of the healthy choices with your child.
If your child prefers to brown bag it to school, pack meals
that are easy to prepare and fun to eat, as well as healthful,
safe and nutritious. The ADA says sandwiches, raw veggies,
crackers, string cheese, whole fruit and pudding are fun foods
that still supply good nutrition. To boost your child’s intake
of complex carbohydrates, you might try incorporating more
vegetables, fruits and cereals into your child’s diet. The
ADA also recommends letting your child help plan and prepare
school lunches. When he or she is involved, the chances are
your child will resist trading carrots for cookies.
for Weight and Health
Guidelines for Americans
Nutrition and Consumer Services
of Economic Research