A New Insight to the Brain and Nutrition Puzzle

Why You Might be Losing Your Mind

Recent Discovery

Is there anything new in nutrition that you haven’t already  heard? This week I listened to a neuroscientist talk about the research on glucose and the brain. It’s possible your school cafeteria is hurting your kid’s academic performance. It’s also possible your own brain is in trouble. How? Many who are unwilling to read the research claim that what you eat doesn’t matter very much. They are wrong.

Let’s take the simple (ha!) subject of sugar and your brain.

Is your school cafeteria helping or hurting your kid’s academic performance? Many who are still unwilling to read the research claim that what you eat doesn’t matter very much. They are wrong. Many early studies were not done with a strong experimental protocol or they were done on malnourished kids. But more recent ones have used the “gold standard” in research (blind studies, large sample sizes, cross-over design) and they have found that school nutrition does matter.

Here’s what I learned that was new…

We know that our brain runs on glucose and oxygen. We know the hippocampus needs glucose to learn, but too much is bad. The form of sugar matters to your brain and there are six types of sugar. The two worse forms of sugar are high fructose corn syrup and concentrated fructose. Every single product that lists fructose as an ingredient might be contributing to problems. High fructose sugar impairs memory, but not learning. Moderate-high levels of fructose in your diet will impair neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons). On-going fructose consumption may damage the liver.

Recently, two large and high-quality studies (both randomized, double-blind) used a total of 780 typical, healthy school aged children. All were given either a combination of vitamins and minerals, a supplement of omega-3 essential fats EPA and DHA, or the vitamins and minerals with the omega-3 fats, or a placebo on 6 days a week for 12 months.

At the start of the trial, the children were tested for blood levels of all of these nutrients, all of which significantly improved when they were retested after 12 months. The schoolchildren on the vitamins and minerals had significant improvement in tests of verbal learning and memory. (Osendarp SJ et al., Am J Clin Nutr. 2007).

Another study was testing diets for an eight-week trial comparing a low carb high fat diet (LCHF) with a conventional high carb low fat (HCLF) weight loss diet. Researchers found that the people on the low carb diet lost more weight than those on the low fat diet. But they also had better processing speed in the tests–their brains worked faster! (Halyburton AK et al., Am J Clin Nutr. 2007).

Hint…DO NOT listen to the naysayers. They are behind in their science. Yes, nutrition does matter!


Moderation, as usual, is the key. This research DOES NOT SAY avoid fruits. It says, in general, less fruits are better than more fruits. It says that concentrated fructose (in products and large numbers of fresh fruit) are not good for you. An apple a day is still okay. A banana for lunch is just fine. But vegetables may be better for you than fruit. Fruit sticks or dried fruits are concentrated fructose (bad).

There are many ways educators can reduce the effects of the poor diets that some kids are eating these days.

  1. Role model. Eat well and talk to kids about your own decisions in class when it’s appropriate. Avoid being “too preachy”, but remember – you are an authority figure to most kids.
  2. Include nutritional information to parents in any of the open houses or school newsletters or school websites. My favorite book for kids is Brain Foods for Kids by Nicola Graimes. For adults, learn about how nutrition affects your own brain in The Edge Effect by Eric Braverman.
  3. Do class research projects. Divide your class randomly in half. Each does something different. Use simple tasks to measure pre and post. Let students discover the difference on their own bodies and mind.
  4. Include nutritional information in units on science, the body, health and physical education. There are plenty of ways to slip it into the curriculum.
  5. Work with the school cafeteria staff. Provide a few snippets from the best books. Let them ask you for more information.

Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.” Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen!

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Photo by x-ray delta one

11 replies
  1. Widad
    Widad says:

    I would like to thank you for sending me this important article.
    This article gave me an entrance idea to explain “the digestive system and food” lesson in grade 7 .

  2. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    A quick question: It appears that your in-text citations do not match your reference list (no Osendarp or Halyburton in the latter). Could we please get those references? I’d like to read further.

    Thanks, as always, for the great information!

  3. Carole Snider
    Carole Snider says:

    As usual, your information is so relevant for educators. I especially like the reminder to model for our students. I will share the information, but I will certainly work diligently to demonstrate my belief in the importance of good nutrition.

  4. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    I teach in a Kindergarten in New Zealand and we have quite a strict healthy lunch policy. Thank you for giving us the research to further inform our families about keeping their children healthy and ready to learn.

  5. Dan Schmidt
    Dan Schmidt says:

    The article mentions the importance of role modeling for our children. I am glad our First Lady Michelle Obama has taken on the issue of diet and nutrition. She is a mother of two and definitely a role model for many. We have a real obesity problem in the United States and too many of our kids have a poor diet and do not get enough exercise.

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