In a new study (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19662657) done at the University of Pittsburgh, researchers scanned the brains of 94 people who were of normal weight, overweight, and obese. The results were staggering. Overweight people had 4% less brain tissue than people of normal weight, and obese people had 8% less brain tissue than people of normal weight. These results are serious for children who are obese. According to the author of the study, just a 4% loss represents, “severe” brain degeneration.
Four areas of the brain are reported to be effected by obesity:
- Frontal and temporal lobes: Critical for planning and memory
- Anterior cingulate gyrus: Responsible for attention and executive functions
- Hippocampus: Important for long-term memory
- Basal ganglia: Essential for proper movement and coordination
How Childhood Obesity Impacts Learning
Obesity has serious consequences for learning because in obese people,
- loss of brain tissue results in less brain to think which results in a lower IQ;
- there is a loss in the ability to regulate attention so a child at school is not able to remain focused long enough to absorb any information so less learning is taking place
- long-term memory is impaired so there is limited retention of what he does manage to learn;
- and now the child is also clumsy, because basal ganglia are all clogged up causing a loss of coordination.
This information suggests that obesity interferes with the child’s ability to learn, and, if we have correctly understood the facts in the research, we may conclude a logical relationship between obesity and learning disabilities. This all brings to mind the poster child for obesity and learning sitting in front of the TV playing video games while stuffing his face with pizza and washing it all down with soda or some other soft drink laden with sugar. An assessment plan, evaluation, and a meeting to design an individualized education plan, for special education do not seem to be proper interventions for this poster child. This scene suggests the need for more exercise and better nutrition.
Curb Childhood Obesity and Learning
Recommended interventions and preventions for our poster child includes turning off the TV and seeing that the child gets more exercise. Put the child outdoors to play, or purchase a Wii Sport instead of video games so that he can get some exercise indoors. The physical exercise required to play Wii could be just the ticket. Research demonstrates remarkable results for elderly adults, so let’s pretend that the results are equally beneficial for children, and we have covered step number one: more exercise. However, new information suggests that children have demonstrated the potential to injure themselves playing this game, so they may need careful supervision while playing.
Other suggestions for exercise include parks, playgrounds, community centers, baseball leagues, and soccer leagues, all of which are available free of charge in most cities. Ask around and get your poster child enrolled. If he is not yet a poster child, the activity could prevent him becoming one.
The second step, in addressing childhood obesity is nutrition. This one is easy because children do not choose their own menus. Sounds easy, but better nutrition can be a tall order for those busy adults/parents who are nutritionally challenged themselves. When adults are nutritionally challenged, they tend to take the easy way out with foods less time consuming to prepare. Sometimes, therefore, childhood obesity is extended into adulthood.
Here, a gradual change to more beneficial foods is needed. An immediate action with immense benefits is to eliminate soft drinks and sodas. Drink water, milk, or fruit juice instead. It is surprising how much better water tastes when it is chilled.
Prevent Childhood Obesity with Healthier Nutrition
An immediate approach to preventing childhood obesity and its impact upon learning is to improve nutrition by eliminating added sugar from your child’s diet. The first step in this process is to begin reading labels.
If sugar or high fructose corn syrup (another name for sugar) is included in the first three ingredients in your child’s breakfast cereal, don’t buy it. Ingredients are listed on labels by weight or volume and being number one, or in the top three ingredients on a label, means that there is more sugar in the cereal than wheat, oats, rice or other nutrients.
Next, all the remaining words that you may not be familiar with or cannot pronounce are chemicals added to keep the contents of the package from spoiling before someone buys it, or to colour it so children will eat it. These additives have no nutritional value, and are known to cause allergic reactions in children. Remember the adage, “if you can’t say it, don’t eat it.”
Instead, purchase a dozen eggs and some sausage. Scramble the eggs and sausage together and serve in a taco shell. Add some fresh fruits and vegetables to the menu and you will win the war against obesity. It will take some time and effort to master a healthier lifestyle for an obese child, but the change in his behaviour and improved achievement and social interactions at school will be well worth it.
While working with a parent whose child was exhibiting learning and behavioural problems in the classroom we learned that the child did fine the first two hours of the day, but about 11 am his behaviour became so disruptive that he was referred to the principals office. From there he had been referred to a special program outside his attendance area. To prevent the transfer to a different school, the parent was immediately advised to ask for an evaluation to determine the cause of the problem.
While waiting for the evaluation, we tried some things at home. We began by eliminating sugar from the child’s breakfast. After just three weeks, when the evaluation was due, the classroom teacher stated that the evaluation was not necessary, and that the mother just wanted the evaluation to “see how smart her son is.” The mother chose to completely eliminate sugar from his other meals as well.
When children exhibit hyperactivity and lack of attention in the classroom as this child did, it may be diagnosed as an attention deficit disorder. If the label ADD, ADHD, hyperactive, or attention deficit has been a diagnosis for your child, look first at what he is eating, and then his environment to find what he is allergic to.