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How the Right Food Choices Can Help Teens Succeed at School

People have recognized the link between nutrition and school performance for hundreds of years. It’s believed that the first school lunch program in the United States started in Philadelphia in 1894, where they charged families one penny for lunch in a program that was designed to help kids concentrate in school. 

“A hungry child cannot focus on what the teacher is saying and will not be able to remember much of what was discussed in class,” said Richard Wahl, MD, an adolescent medicine specialist with Banner – University Medicine.

Research published in Nutrients found that universal school meals are linked with academic performance. However, people don’t always agree on what kids should eat. 

“This is a discussion that has been going on for a long time, with opinions that have changed fairly often,” said Dr. Wahl. “There is no ‘one size fits all,’ as food choices and nutrition vary to an incredibly large degree around the world, across cultures, religious beliefs and family traditions.”

Here are a few things to know about how nutrition can impact teens’ performance in school.

Why it can be tough for teens to get the nutrition they need

We know that good nutrition can help kids learn — it’s a key part of their academic success. And it’s especially important for teens since the brain is constantly changing during adolescence. That’s a time when the brain’s memory, attention and problem-solving regions develop a lot. 

But teens face challenges when it comes to healthy eating: 

  • They might skip meals, especially breakfast, due to their busy schedules or dieting habits. 
  • They often eat a lot of fast food or processed foods and sugary drinks and snacks. 
  • They might not drink enough water, especially if they have a lot of sugar-sweetened drinks.

These eating habits can crowd healthier choices off of teens’ plates. Eating foods low in nutrients can lead to energy crashes, poor concentration and mood swings that can make learning and studying difficult. 

“Sweets and desserts have always tasted better than a more nutritious school lunch. They also compete for the student’s attention in most school cafeterias and vending machines,” said Dr. Wahl. “The same, of course, is often true at home. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and malnutrition definitely impact brain performance, making it difficult to concentrate and to think.” 

The top nutrients teens need

Like people of all ages, teens need to eat a healthy, balanced diet. “A healthy diet should include a wide variety of foods. Vegetable, fruits and protein-rich foods — meats as well as vegetarian and vegan options — are important. Food sources of fiber, healthy carbohydrates and healthy fats are also needed,” said Dr. Wahl.

These four nutrients are essential for teens’ growing brains:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are important for memory and learning.
    • Find them in: Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and trout.
  • Antioxidants like vitamins C and E, as well as phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables, protect brain cells from damage.
    • Find them in: Colorful fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, strawberries, spinach and kale.
  • Protein provides amino acids, the building blocks for chemicals that send and receive signals in the brain that affect mood, focus and brain performance.
    • Find it in: Skinless poultry, tofu, legumes and lean cuts of beef or pork.
  • Complex carbohydrates give the brain energy and support concentration. 
    • Find them in: Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat pasta and oats.

Strategies for good nutrition

Of course, it’s not enough to know what teens should be eating. How can parents and other adults encourage teens to make healthy choices?

These tips can help: 

  • Encourage regular, balanced meals with a variety of foods: Prepare home-cooked meals when you can. That way, you control the ingredients.
  • Stock your kitchen with healthy snack choices: Snacks can give teens the energy they need to stay focused while studying. Good choices are nuts and seeds, yogurt with berries, veggies and hummus, and moderate amounts of dark chocolate. “Offering healthy choices to teens is crucial,” said Dr. Wahl.
  • Teach them how foods low in nutrients (like fast food and processed food) can impact their health and schoolwork: Be sure they understand the consequences of unhealthy eating habits — they might feel tired, have trouble concentrating and get sick more often.
  • Lead by example: When you model healthy food choices, your kids are more likely to follow along.
  • Have your teens help you plan meals and shop for groceries: That can help them understand nutrition and make better choices. “Including teens in food choice decisions and food preparation is important,” said Dr. Wahl. 
  • Explain portion control: Overeating can lead to energy crashes and reduced focus. It can help to pre-portion snacks, use smaller plates, eat mindfully and have a schedule for snacks.
  • Stress how balance is important: If your teen is attracted to strict diets, teach them that it’s OK to have treats in moderation, along with nutrient-dense options. All foods can fit into a balanced diet. And stress that strict diets are hard to maintain in the long run and can lead to unhealthy ways of eating.
  • Have open, honest conversations with your teen: Encourage them to ask questions and address their concerns. Share your thoughts with your teen if you’re worried about their eating patterns or lack of nutrients. If you have serious concerns or think your teen might have an eating disorder, talk to a health care provider.
  • Talk to an expert: “Dietitians and nutritionists can be very helpful in selecting a healthy diet for your family,” said Dr. Wahl. “Speak with a health care provider and ask for a referral to a dietitian or nutritionist if concerns or questions remain.”

It’s important to balance guidance and independence without being overbearing. You can lead by example, offer gentle guidance, make sure you have healthy options in your home and encourage your teen to make some of their own decisions about nutrition. Within reason, respect their food choices.

Don’t overlook the importance of water

Staying hydrated is important for brain function, focus, concentration and regulating mood. When you’re properly hydrated, you have steady blood flow to the brain. This blood flow nourishes the brain with the oxygen and nutrients it needs.

When you drink plenty of water, it also helps you balance your electrolytes. Electrolytes such as sodium and potassium help your nerves function, which in turn helps you concentrate. Drinking water also helps prevent overheating, which can make it tough to focus. And it helps remove toxins that could make it harder for your brain to work properly.

Encourage your teens to drink water by explaining how sugary drinks can sap their energy and make it hard for them to concentrate. Explain to them that it’s possible to mistake hunger for thirst. Provide water with all meals and snacks, and be sure teens have plenty of water during exercise.

If your teen has a tough time drinking enough water, you can also:

  • Give them a reusable water bottle so they always have access to water.
  • Suggest adding lemon or cucumber to water if they don’t like the flavor of plain water.
  • Have them use their phone to set reminders to drink water.

The bottom line

Good nutrition is a key part of strong academic performance for teens. Parents and other adults can promote a balanced approach to nutrition, keep the lines of communication open and quietly monitor eating habits. That way, they can guide their teenagers toward healthy choices and a good relationship with food that will help them throughout their lives.

Your health care provider, pediatrician or a Banner Health expert can help you develop an eating plan that’s right for your family.

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