About Brain Food – the role of proper nutrition in the cognitive development and functioning of learners: Discussion with Prof Louise van den Berg

Name of Scholar / Expert:

Prof Louise van den Berg

Who is Prof Louise van den Berg?

Prof Louise van den Berg is an Associate Professor and the head of the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics in the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Free State, South Africa.  She has more than 30 experience in the field of nutrition.  She is passionate about the role of nutrition, student wellness, and the prevention of chronic disease of lifestyle.

Why is it essential that parents and teachers know about proper nutrition for cognitive development?

When we talk about cognitive development, we are referring to how children think, explore and figure things out, in other words, we are talking about the development of knowledge, skills, problem solving and dispositions in children, which help them to think about and understand the world around them.

Brain development begins shortly after conception and continues throughout early childhood and into adolescence and early adulthood. Diet, first of the pregnant mother and then of the child after birth, plays a crucial role in the forming and shaping of brain tissue and nerve connections that underlies cognitive development. Cognitive development, in turn, determines their cognitive functioning, which plays a crucial role in academic achievement.

It has long been known that deficiencies during childhood, of protein, certain fatty acids or specific vitamins and minerals are associated with poor developmental performance, resulting in low school achievement and psychological problems.

Newer research also links specific foods and specific dietary patterns directly to more subtle levels of cognitive functioning, for example to cognitive processing, and specifically to what is called cognitive functioning.

Cognitive functioning is vital because it involves processes like working memory, verbal memory, attention and planning abilities.  The link between food and cognition plays out in the long run – in other words, the type of diet that a child follows habitually affects his/her cognitive functioning, but also in the short term, meaning that what a child ate for breakfast, for example, can affect their cognitive function on a given day.

What is brain food (food that enhances cognitive development)?

Recent systematic reviews beautifully summarize the answer to this specific question. A systematic review is a specific type of research tool that allows us to look at and evaluate the findings of all the studies that have been done on a specific topic.

The systematic reviews on the effect of food and diet on cognitive functioning shows that a diet that contains lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fatty fish (sardines, pilchards, salmon, mackerel and to a lesser extent tuna) and ample amounts of fibre, improves cognitive functioning, in other words, has a positive effect on working memory, planning abilities, and the ability of children to focus their attention. In contrast, the review found that specific dietary patterns significantly inhibited these cognitive functions. Diets with such adverse effects were rich in less-healthy snack foods (like crispy chips, crackers and biscuits, sweets), as well as sugar-sweetened beverages (including fizzy drinks, sports drinks, cordials), processed meats (Viennas, Russians, polonies, ham), as well as fried foods, refined food, and takeout foods (typical fast foods and street foods like slap chips, Schambane/Kota (hollowed out half loaf of bread filled with fried chips, egg, Russian  and garage pies)

Another systematic review of all studies about the role of breakfast in cognitive functioning found that breakfast is essential for memory and overall accuracy in school tasks. It is interesting to note that children and adolescents have a much higher average blood flow to their brains than adults.  This increased blood supply is necessary to deliver a steady stream of glucose and oxygen, both of which their brains burn much faster than adult brains.  In addition, children and adolescents have higher sleep demand than adults, meaning that if they go to bed earlier than adults, they have long periods of overnight fasting, which can deplete stores of glucose (also called glycogen stores) overnight. Children and adolescents, therefore, wakeup running low on brain fuel, making breakfast before school vital for their cognitive functioning. However, research also shows that not any old breakfast will suffice; it has to be low GI – in other words, food that breaks down slowly to ensure a slow, steady flow of glucose, instead of a spike.

How can parents and teachers practically apply the use of proper nutrition to advance cognitive development?

Firstly, parents, caregivers and teachers should teach and model good eating habits and find ways of motivating children and adolescents to eat a variety of fruit and vegetables, whole grains and fatty fish like pilchards, while at the same time limiting their intake of unhealthy snacks, fast foods, processed meats and sugar-sweetened beverages.  Furthermore, parents and caregivers can ensure that learners eat a low GI breakfast en take a low GI lunchbox to school (especially primary school children and very active adolescents).

Ways that one can do this practically is to replace, first of all, high GI breakfast cereals like corn flakes, rice crispies or sweetened pops, with low GI breakfast cereals such as oats, All bran, or Muesli.  Also adding some dairy to the cereal, like milk or yoghurt, lowers the GI of the meal. Interestingly, Maize porridge has a very high GI, but if you make it the night before, let it cool down completely, and then reheat it, the GI becomes much lower. In addition to cereal and milk, a good low GI breakfast includes some fresh fruit. To further lower the GI, you can also add a little low-fat protein like a boiled, poached or scrambled egg with some vegetables.  Sliced apple with some peanut butter dip is a favourite go-to on, particularly busy mornings.

Also, send children to school with a healthy, low GI lunchbox.  To prevent the morning rush, the lunchbox can be packed the night before and kept in the fridge.  A tip that works is to involve the children in making a list of healthy possibilities that can go in the lunchbox and posting this list in the kitchen so that you can quickly come up with ideas.  Then keep the kitchen stocked with the ingredients.  A tasty lunchbox contains variations of a whole-wheat starch, vegetables and fruit, a little dairy and a small portion of low-fat protein.  For example, a lunchbox can be a whole wheat sandwich or a brown tortilla wrap, or even a pasta salad. You can spread it with homemade or store-bought hummus, low-fat mayonnaise, low-fat cottage cheese or mashed avocado and add tomato, cucumber, lettuce and a slice of cheese or egg. Limit fat and oil to one small serving. For fruit – you can include a whole fruit or fruit kebab, or small fruit salad. Vegetables can take the form of raw pieces with a dip of cottage cheese or hummus. You could make small quiches with includes eggs, cheese and vegetables.  All children like a little treat as well, this can be homemade popcorn, nut granola, some dried fruit, a small handful of nuts, or peanuts and raisins.

Another lovely snack is taking a slice of whole wheat bread, cutting off the crusts, flattening it a bit by rolling it with a rolling pin or glass, then spreading it with peanut butter and rolling it around a peeled banana.  Some kids like the whole banana dog and others prefer to have it sushi-like slices. To drink, diluted fruit juice, milk or low-fat flavoured milk or in winter, hot chocolate with low-fat milk are good choices.

The role of school-based tuck shops

As you will notice, the healthy options listed above are quite the opposite of what is sold in most school-based tuck shops. Unfortunately, research has shown over and over that the food environment in and around the schoolyard influences the way school children will eat.  We, as parents and teachers, therefore, have an obligation and a right to influence what is sold at these tuck shops.  Unless we change the food environment that learners find themselves in at home and school, we will not succeed to improve children’s eating habits.

The role of supplements

Parents often make the mistake of thinking that a poor diet can be remedied by supplements. The billion-dollar supplement industry would certainly like us to believe that, and that is what they promote through advertising.  However, research consistently shows that a healthy, varied diet on its own, far outperforms an unhealthy diet plus supplements.  The truth is that healthy foods contain thousands of components that work together towards health, including cognitive functioning, and no supplement can yet capture all of these benefits.


Visit our Tools page for  Prof’s van den Berg’s recommended and applicable literature sources on proper nutrition for cognitive development

Prof Louise van den Berg’s contact details are as follow:
Tel: +27(0)51-401-3316
Email: vdBergVL@ufs.ac.za

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