Balanced Diet is essential for healthy academic results

words by Kate McIntosh

Good nutrition has long been championed by peak athletes as essential to performing at optimal levels, but research suggests it is just as important in fuelling the brain.

Former ironwoman and health coach Karla Gilbert said the importance of good nutrition in sport has really caught on over the past decade and is now also being recognised in the field of
academic performance.

The stress of adjusting to an unfamiliar environment, study workloads and budget constraints made students particularly vulnerable to developing poor eating habits.

“For our bodies and minds to perform at their best we need to nourish them with the correct fuel. If we’re continually filling up on poor fuel then we splutter and eventually burnout,” she said.

“An unhealthy diet has a roll-on effect with everything we do. In the short term, poor nutrition contributes to tiredness, stress and everyday functioning and decision making.”
Gilbert said alcohol and refined sugars found in energy drinks or processed foods were often devoid of the nutrients needed to fuel our brains and may also affect focus, concentration and learning outcomes.

Researchers in Australia have found that the Western diet, comprising a high intake of fast food, fried snacks and red meat, was a risk factor for poorer academic performance in adolescence, while increased fruit and leafy green vegetable intake had a more positive influence.

A 2008 study looking at food intake and academic performance among Canadian adolescents found students with higher grades were more likely to consume milk, vegetables and fruit on a daily
basis than were those with lower grades.

The University of Southern Queensland is using digital platforms to promote good nutrition and wellbeing to its students. The university’s HealthyU portal provides students with a broad range of information on health, support services and wellbeing matters, including nutrition and exercise.

Health promotion officer Katie Levitt said the initiative was established in 2012 as a way of reaching more students, of which more than 69% study externally. “Because of our

“Because of our demographic we couldn’t reach all of them [on campus], so we have moved into that digital space,” she said. “It’s about improving students’ health literacy and providing meaningful access to health information and connecting students with support services.”

She said budgetary constraints were a major factor influencing students’ dietary choices, while others simply lacked knowledge about cooking, food preparation and healthy lifestyle options.“We talk about good nutrition as part of maintaining a healthy

“We talk about good nutrition as part of maintaining a healthy immune system and making sure that they are fuelling their bodies and their brains with different foods that are important for brain function and motivation,” she said. Levitt said the health and wellbeing message was also promoted across social media channels, with healthy eating tips and simple, inexpensive recipes regularly posted to the Instagram page.

“We try to say to them that it’s not expensive to eat healthy and that it’s definitely possible to eat well within a small budget,” she said.

Along with a healthy diet, Gilbert said it was important for students to incorporate exercise into their daily routine and ensure they got enough sleep and didn’t skip meals. Research has consistently shown a strong connection between eating breakfast regularly and better academic performance. A 2013 Norwegian study using a sample of 475 high school students found regular breakfast was associated with fewer learning difficulties in reading, writing and maths. In the US, breakfast programs in schools have been associated with better academic grades, reduced absenteeism and improved cognitive performance.

“To help students perform at their best, I think the most important thing is to look at behaviours around their health,” said Gilbert.
“Skipping breakfast, having late nights on top of an already stressful day is a recipe for disaster.”

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About the author
Kate McIntosh has worked throughout regional and remote Australia covering court, local government, health and sport. She also held positions in Latvia, Italy and Sudan. Most recently she spent 18 months mentoring young journalists in East Timor and currently works at Backstory News Magazine on the Sunshine Coast.