Is Health Academic? Part 2

What does sugar have to do with the SOLs? Activity with the ACTs? And whole body health with truancy, discipline, drop-out rates and college admissions? Here’s a little food for thought from the folks with the impressive initials after their names.

“Children can learn at optimal levels only if they are healthy,” says Howard Taras, MD, Acting Chief of Community Pediatrics at the UCSD School of Medicine. What’s working against them? According to Taras, cafeteria diet.

“While American children are not malnourished – that is, most of them get more than enough calories – the types of foods that make up those calories are too high in sugar (soft drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals) and fat (chips, fries, donuts) and too low in fiber and natural vitamin sources (whole grains, vegetables, fruit).”

Taras sees the problem double-fold. Schools have cut phys ed and recess, while promoting the very junk food that causes students to gain weight. In Charlottesville City Schools, one in three kids is either overweight or obese. Yet, last year the schools sold $84,000 worth of ice cream in school snack bars. Taras says it’s no surprise kids are gaining weight. But how do academics fit in? Let’s ask the experts.

“Efforts to improve school performance that ignore health are ill-conceived, as are health improvement efforts that ignore education,” states The National Commission on the Role of School and the Community in Improving Adolescent Health.

Healthier kids perform better. A lot better – as the most current clinical data proves.

Studies in 2008 by Dr. Paul J. Veugelers of the University of Alberta found that: “Students who ate an adequate amount of fruit, vegetables, protein, fiber and other components of a healthy diet were significantly less likely to fail a literacy test.” Another 2008 two-year study found that improving the nutritional quality of school meals improved math scores.

And, junk food drives scores down. Significantly. In another 2008 lifetime study, Dr Pauline Emmett from the University of Bristol found a “robust association” between children’s unhealthy diets and poor tests scores. “Youngsters who lived on sweets, crisps and chicken nuggets from an early age were 10% more likely to be failing between the ages of six and ten than their classmates.”

A 2008 paper published in the Journal of School Health puts it bluntly: “Above and beyond socioeconomic factors, diet quality is important to academic performance.” This is a science-based strategy. The evidence is clear. Change the diet. Change the results. And it has been actively implemented seemingly everywhere but here.

This isn’t news. As a result of changes in school diet in the early 1980s in New York City schools, the average performance of New York schools rose from the 41st percentile to the 51st percentile.

In 2000, a Georgia elementary school went completely sugar-free. Test scores improved 15% in the first year. And Browns Mill Elementary became a National Blue Ribbon School in 2005. A Georgia School of Excellence in 2005 and 2008. More impressive still: disciplinary incidents dropped 23% within six months.

Diet changes discipline, too. Significantly.

Look at Appleton, Wisconsin – where an out-of-control high school (with a full-time, armed police officer on staff) overhauled its cafeteria food. In two months, zero discipline problems. Drop-outs went from 350 per year to 16. Fact.

The evidence is apparent. If not unsettling. A recent study on Boston high school students found “a significant and strong association between soft drinks and violence.” Violence against peers, siblings and dates. The study’s researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health said: “It was shocking to us when we saw how clear the relationship was.”

Blood sugar fluctuation affects behavior. Period. Sugar has also been clinically liked to impulsivity, hyperactivity, mental distress and schizophrenia. We don’t have the space in this article to get into its systemic ramifications and the “metabolic syndrome” of diabetes, heart disease and stroke … much less cancer.

This isn’t about hysteria, hypothesis or opinion (or “religion or politics” as one school dietician proposed at a school board meeting). It’s about fundamental bio-chemistry. It’s also about public policy.

Policy that’s been changed for the healthier in Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Florida, California, Colorado and Texas. In October, the entire state of Massachusetts, which already has the top-ranking schools in the nation, banned candy, soda, french fries and chocolate milk from its school cafeterias. “This puts Massachusetts in the lead in promoting children’s health and well-being,” boasts Valerie Bassett, director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association. Where does it put Virginia? You decide.

The new nine-page strategic Wellness Policy, drafted by the School Health Advisory Board last year, has been sitting on the desks of the city school board since June, and likely stands to be ignored for yet another semester. How long need our children wait for a healthier solution?

It’s not about silver bullets … or silver spoons, for that matter. All kids benefit from better nutrition, regardless of ethnicity or economics. Good health is good science and good public policy. But if you can’t stomach the research (or the messenger), just know it was unarguably Thomas Jefferson who wrote: “Health is worth more than learning.”


Sidebar: The science of sugar can be perhaps traced to the growth hormone brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Rat studies at UCLA found that subjects learn faster if they have more BDNF. Sugar consumption inhibits BDNF production. It took only two months on a high sugar diet to significantly reduce BDNF in the brains of animals and to affect their ability to perform spatial and memory tasks.

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