Children - Learning and Behavoir

Overweight Children, Learning and Behavior: The Eating Habits that Cause Overweight and Prediabetes Can Also Set the Stage for Learning and Behavior Problems

Forty or 50 years ago, chubby children were a pretty rare sight and learning disorders were practically unheard of. Now, one of every three children and teenagers is overweight or obese[1] and, by some estimates, one in 12 children has some type of learning disorder.

And the situation is getting worse real fast. The latest statistics indicate that almost three million adolescents have prediabetes, the precarious steppingstone to full-blown type-2 diabetes.[2] [3] The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one of every 14 adolescents and teenagers now has type-2 (adult onset) diabetes, a disease that never used to occur in children.[4]

But the problems with childhood obesity and diabetes go beyond these two health problems. The same underlying eating habits—too many junk foods that are high in calories but low in nutrition—that set the stage for overweight and blood-sugar disorders can also interfere with energy levels, concentration, learning, and moods.

Why Are Kids Getting Bigger?

With the majority of American adults overweight or prediabetic, it shouldn’t be surprising that children are following in their parents’ footsteps. Infants, children, and teenagers are being exposed to a toxic food environment much earlier than their parents and grandparents were—and suffering the health consequences at younger ages. [5]

Several dietary factors have converged to undermine the physical and mental health of children. Because of time pressures, families increasingly rely on quick-to-prepare convenience foods and fast-food restaurants. Most packaged supermarket foods—think boxes, cans, jars, bottles, bags, and tubs—have been processed, meaning that their nutritional value has been degraded. Additionally, high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats are common ingredients in all of these foods. HFCS increases appetite and trans fats (found in hydrogenated oils) promote weight gain. Additionally, trans fats interfere with how the body and brain use essential dietary fats (e.g., the omega-3 and omega-6 families), which are needed for normal brain development.

Eating Habits and Learning Problems

Nutrients form the foundation of our body and brain biochemistry, and they are crucial for normal brain development and stable moods. When a child routinely eats nutrient-poor food like the ones mentioned above, he will be lacking the nutrients his body, and brain, need to properly function. Because the brain is so sensitive to its nutritional milieu, the first signs of nutritional imbalances and deficiencies usually affect concentration, mood, and behavior.

Glucose (blood sugar) serves as the principal fuel of the brain, but foods high in processed sugars and refined carbohydrates lead to sharp fluctuations in glucose levels. For a growing child, severe ups and downs in blood sugar can lead to irritability, lethargy, hyperactivity, and/or inability to concentrate and focus.

The dietary solution is fairly straightforward: Focus on eating mostly fresh foods, particularly quality protein at each meal to maintain steady blood sugar levels. High-fiber vegetables—practically everything except potatoes—also help stabilize blood sugar levels. A quality breakfast, such as eggs or steel-cut oatmeal, can help start the day with better energy levels, moods, and mental focus.

Jumpstart Improvements with Supplements

Dietary supplements can play an important role in ensuring adequate nutrition, maintaining normal blood sugar control, and improving concentration and learning. Compared with adults, though, infants, children, and teenagers usually need smaller amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients because of their lower body weight.


A quality multi should be the foundation of any supplement regimen, and many supplement companies offer multivitamin/multimineral supplements formulated specifically for children. Adolescents can take half the dosage of a multi intended for adults and, as a general rule, teenagers 15 and older can probably take an adult supplement. Multivitamins contain the B-complex vitamins, which help convert amino acids to functional neurotransmitters, aiding mood and concentration. (If you have questions about supplements for children, check with a Natural Grocers’ nutritional health coach for suggestions.)

Vitamin D

Most multivitamins don’t contain optimal amounts of vitamin D3. Experts now recommend that every infant, child, and adult take at least 1,000 IU of vitamin D. That amount is fine for infants, but you can safely go up to 2,000 for adolescents and 3,000 IU daily for teenagers.

Fish oils

More than half the brain consists of fat, and quality dietary fats are essential for brain development, cognitive function, and steady moods. Fish oils are rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two of the most important omega-3 fats. Research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry and other journals has documented how fish oils help children and adults with depression, bipolar disorder, impulsiveness, hostility, and poor mental focus.[6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] Consider 1,000 to 2,000 mg of fish oils daily.

Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)

The omega-6 fats are also essential for brain development, and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) provides the benefits of this family of fats without any of the negative effects of other omega-6s. GLA is derived from borage, black currant, and evening primrose seed oils—but the dosage is more important than the source. For children and teenagers, consider adding 40 to 100 mg of GLA daily.


These compounds are among the healthy fats found in the brain. Like the omega-3s, phospholipids are needed for brain development, and they help learning and memory. Two of the chief phospholipids are phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine. Although they are available in capsule form, lecithin granules are an excellent source of both. Lecithin, which is derived from soy, has a nutty flavor and can be sprinkled on salads, yogurt, or oatmeal.


Magnesium supplements often produce a calming and relaxing effect, particularly in hyperactive children. The mineral stimulates production of gamma amino butyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter with a calming effect. Magnesium is also one of many nutrients involved in the body’s production of dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline.

Improving Your Child’s Diet

Improving the eating habits of children and teenagers is usually as much about family dynamics as much as it is about nutrition. Making positive changes will take time and effort—and what you probably don’t want to hear—most of the burden will fall on parents. As a parent, you are ultimately responsible for your kids’ meals and eating habits. On the positive side, you have some 1,000 opportunities (breakfast, lunch, dinner) each year to coach your kids about good nutrition.

If you’ve made a decision to improve your kids’ eating habits, expect some resistance. After all, most people, young or old, don’t like change. You’ll probably get less resistance with incremental changes, quietly taking unhealthy foods out of the diet and slipping in healthier ones. It’s a delicate balance to avoid making mealtime a battleground.

Remember that you can’t control everything that your child eats, and being totally inflexible encourages resentment and resistance. But if you can help your kids eat one or two healthy meals a day, and supplement their diets with the right nutrients, they will be on the path of good health that will enable them to stay calm, balanced, and ready to learn.


[1] Hedley AA, Ogden CL, Johnson CL, et al. Prevalence of overweight and obesity among US children, adolescents, and adults, 1999-2002. JAMA, 2004;291:2847-2850.

[2] Duncan GE. Prevalence of diabetes and impaired fasting glucose levels among US adolescents. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 2006;160:523-528.

[3] Sinaiko AR, Steinberger J, Moran A, et al. Influence of insulin resistance and body mass index at age 13 on systolic blood pressure, triglycerides, and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol at age 19. Hypertension, 2006;48:730-6.


[5] Anon. Expert sees obesity hitting US life expectancy. Reuters Health news service, February 3, 2005.

[6] Nemets H, Nemets B, Apter A, et al. Omega-3 treatment of childhood depression: a controlled, double-blind study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2006;163:1098-1100.

[7] Sublette ME, Hibbeln JO, Galfalvy H, et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated essential fatty acid status as a predictor of future suicide risk. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2006;163:100-1102.

[8] Parker G, Gibson NA, Brotchie H, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids and mood disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2006;163:969-978.

[9] Hallahan B, Garland MR. Essential fatty acids and their role in the treatment of impulsivity disorders. Prostaglandins, Leukotriences and Essential Fatty Acids, 2004;71:211-216.

[10] Iribarren C, Markovitz JH, Jacobs DR, et al. Dietary intake of n-3, n-6 fatty acids and fish: relationship with hostility in young adults—the CARDIA study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004;58:24-31.

[11] Hamazaki T, Thienprasert A, Kheovichai K, et al. The effect of docosahexaenoic acid on aggression in elderly Thai subjects—a placebo-controlled double-blind study. Nutritional Neuroscience, 2002;5:37-41.

[12] Richardson AJ, Montgomery P. The Oxford-Durham study: a randomized, controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with developmental coordination disorder. Pediatrics, 2005;115:1360-1366.

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