Eating Your Way to Academic Success

Eating Your Way to Academic Success
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Study after study shows that what we eat affects our performance – affecting not only how fast our bodies perform, but our minds as well. For students sent to school to transform a library’s worth of information into knowledge each and every day, being given the fuels to manage this is vital. And yet, what happens in most households, not only in the UAE but around the world? Busy life-styles, the dread at facing arguments at an early hour results in most children having a bowl of sweetened cereal, washed down with either milk or water, before they rush off for their school transport. The “breakfast market” is huge, and its companies market convenience and ease to parents who they know dream of a little peace and quiet in the morning. The pressure on parents is enormous. Speed is a must. And because of this, parents often compromise on healthy eating. This is bad news. While some breakfast is better than no breakfast, quality really matters.   You are what you eat Countless studies show there is a direct link between diet and academic and social performance. For a child to be able to maintain concentration at an optimal level during school hours, their blood glucose levels must remain relatively stable. Eating sweetened and refined foods at breakfast directly works against this. Fluctuating blood glucose levels negatively impact concentration as well as cognitive function. In addition to this, they affect children’s behaviour, energy levels and mood in general. For a child at school this can be a dangerous mix. Not only can academic development be hindered, but social skills may suffer too. Virtually everyone during their school career will have been on the receiving end of unpleasant remarks. Such incidents are much harder to tolerate and may impact a person more if their natural cognitive defences are weakened by insufficient ‘brain food’. Changing breakfast diets is a very slow and potentially challenging process. It is going to be even more of an uphill struggle for a child who has enjoyed years of sweetened, flavoured cereals. The comfort factor of many breakfast products is addictive, as is the sugar content they pack in – some as much as a hefty 19g per 100g of dry product. But this is a good and essential battle, and one that needs to be won.   Making the change Children’s palates can be trained, or retrained. It just takes a long time, discussion, dedication and perseverance. If your child is one who enjoys a bowl of these popular cereals in the morning, an initial step would be to encourage them to mix in an unsweetened, unflavoured variety. To start with, just a little. Over the weeks this can be increased. Slow and gradual change will achieve results here, as children get used to reduced quantities of sugar without a radical change in their diet. Once they only require a little of the flavoured, originally preferred product, you could introduce chopped fresh or dried fruit as a flavouring. Try to get them to eat this 2-3 times per week, aiming to have them eat this every week day. Once this is a realistic and somewhat established routine, you can start experimenting with the following options. Please do not be disheartened if all this proves very challenging and slow. Do not give up, continue. Time and perseverance is important.   Healthier options Here are a number of alternative ideas that can help you with this task: 1, Traditional porridge, made if possible with jumbo oats, are an excellent choice. Add to this one of the following: • the thinnest sprinkling of chocolate powder • grated raw apple mixed with a half teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of cinnamon • any fruit to taste (raspberries, mangoes); nuts may be added too. 2, Bircher Muesli, a Swiss traditional desert, is a wonderful one. Mix jumbo oats, apple juice, plain yoghurt, a selection of fruit, in a large bowl overnight. In the morning add a bit of lemon juice, a sprinkling of sugar if the fruit is very tart, and some chopped nuts. This is delicious, comparatively light and cool. 3, Mix your own muesli which you then serve with milk in the mornings. Recipes are easily found on the internet and can be adapted to taste. This is an enjoyable and simple activity to do with young children, giving plenty of opportunity for them to practise weighing ingredients. (As a rule of thumb – always go easy on the sugar. If necessary this can be added later. Try to gradually wean children off sugar, by slowly reducing the amount.) 4, Offer toast made with brown bread, or oat cakes, with scrambled eggs is a good alternative. 5, Give them plain yoghurt with lots of fruit and nuts, and a sprinkling of cereal. 6, Nuts can and should be included in all children’s diets. They are an excellent source of minerals and oils. Sadly, due to the large number of children emerging with nut allergies in recent years, nuts have become very restricted in all children’s diets. If your child is not allergic, you can redress this imbalance at home. 7, Offer them hard boiled eggs with a slice of whole meal toast. The toast can be buttered or have a different spread. You can mix cream cheese with smoked mackerel or sardines as a wonderfully good spread. 8, Let them have wholemeal or rye toast with nut butters (these can to be very sweet and some can be cloying). Experiment with making your own. Or whole meal or rye toast with a slice of chicken, ham, or some fish. With their breakfast, children could have: • a fruit smoothie made with milk, a few tablespoons of yoghurt and a selection of fruit. Frozen fruit is perfect on a hot Dubai summer morning. Include a cup of water to keep it all runny and drinkable. • a small glass of fresh orange juice • milk (unflavoured and unsweetened) As with all things, constantly varying what is on offer, while keeping in mind to including protein, low-GI carbohydrates, some fruit and as little sugar as possible in children’s breakfast, will help to keep children interested. On days children have tests and exams such a breakfast is even more imperative.

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Agnes Holly has worked for more than 25 years in education ranging from university to nursery, and everything in-between.  She is a qualified SEN teacher and has worked extensively with children who have dyslexia and ADHD.  She has additional practical experience in the form of five of her own children aged between 6 and 23.  

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