Healthy Bodies Equal Healthy Minds

By: Nancy Salvato

Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act

In 2004, the “Child Nutrition and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Reauthorization Act” was passed to “address the growing obesity epidemic and promote healthy eating and physical activity through changes in school environments.”1 Although schools are locally controlled, any LEA, or local education agency which benefits from federal school meal programs must develop a school wellness plan for the 2006-2007 school year.

While any school’s agenda and mission should reflect the values and specific needs of those in the local communities served, the federal government is well within its bounds to promote nutrition and exercise in schools that receive federal funding, or otherwise, because the maintenance of a country in which the people are sovereign depends on a healthy, high functioning society.

National School Lunch program

The need for the schools to step up to this task is evident due to fact that the National School Lunch program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (initially implemented 59 years ago to battle undernourishment), has devolved into processed and fast food meals contributing to 1 in 6 kids being overweight. 2 As a matter of fact, the USDA “Commodities Program” created a market for unwanted, “high fat and high cholesterol surplus products” 3 such as processed pork balls (which use the pieces of the pig which restaurants refuse) or apples with no taste. 4 Enhancing this problem are vending machines filled with Coke and Pepsi products, the result of lucrative contracts with companies garnering exclusive rights to selling their soda in our nation’s schools.5

Although the National School Lunch Program is regulated, some nutritionists and food advocates suggest more stringent meal guidelines because cheese and other processed and canned foods are among the most common commodities available for no cost to schools. Not surprisingly, this discourages serving fresh fruits and vegetables. 6

It has been suggested that the meat and dairy lobbies have significant influence over those making decisions to purchase surplus beef, pork and other high- protein food commodities to the neglect of healthier items. Schools are prohibited from serving nondairy beverages as part of a subsidized lunch unless there is a medical reason not to drink cow’s milk.7

Compounding the situation are additional food products sold in vending machines, in fundraising, and used as classroom incentives. Even teachers, administrators, and parents are served less than healthy foods, such as doughnuts, at meetings and other events. 8

“Healthcare professionals are seeing weight-related health problems in school children that in the past were simply nonexistent.” 9 Soda, fast food and candy contribute to a higher caloric intake, 100 or more calories daily than 10 years ago, and worse, many kids are uninterested in eating fruits and vegetables.10

Wellness policy requirements

Wellness policy requirements of the school lunch law indicate that, in addition to following nutrition guidelines for all foods available on each school campus, schools should include goals for nutrition education and physical activity. Common sense dictates that kids and adults receive sound education about food choices and provided nutrition guidelines for what is being served. Some schools have already discovered that cultivating gardens, offering cooking classes, and replacing boring cafeterias with visually appealing food courts offering diverse cuisine also contribute to sounder nutrition habits.11

How does exercise factor into the equation? Although kids should receive an hour a day, many school districts allow students to skip physical education classes entirely. In some cases, this is due to limited time, staff and equipment.12

Although barriers, such as, food preparation costs; student food preferences; existing contracts; lack of facilities and staff to store, prepare and serve fresh foods; antiquated kitchen design; limited access to fresh produce; and agricultural industry practices, must be negotiated in order to improve the current situation, research has proven that benefits including better educational outcomes and reductions in healthcare expense, are worth the hurdle. 13

While, “it costs $6,000 to feed a single child from pre-school through the time he graduates 12th grade,” according to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), “it costs about $175,000 per adult to treat them for diet-related diseases from the time they’re 30 years on”, therefore, “investing money into school food programs is critical to preventing diet-related health problems down the line.”14

On the Run

It is entirely conceivable, Rick Bayless’s theory, that people who don’t find food satisfying eat larger amounts. 15 Regardless, time constraints can dictate that families with parents working long hours to make ends meet, sometimes complicated by kids involved in multiple after school activities, grab high caloric, low nutritional value, fast food on the run instead of partaking in a traditional sit down, sensory appealing, high nutrient meal, which offers the added benefit of connecting people to each other, their culture and traditions.

Perhaps more transparency will compel people to demand healthier, satisfying take out fare which excites the senses, such as Boston Market or Panera Bread. Still, price barriers currently impede such availability to lower income families, and leave McDonalds (whose healthier options many find unappealing) the most affordable when there is a time crunch.

In order to break an unhealthy lifestyle, kids and adults need to be convinced of the incredible benefits that can occur should they change bad eating habits and make time for physical activity. Emphasized, should be the importance of each food group, recommended amounts, and how exercise contributes to the mix. Just for shock value, a viewing of “Supersize Me” might be just the catalyst to ensure that time is set aside each day to take better care of ourselves.

The Role of Exercise

Research has found that exercise might offset some of the mental declines associated with the aging process. This is because exercise increases breathing and heart rate so that more blood flows to the brain. “It is thought that one of the reasons why the elderly – especially those with coronary artery disease or hypertension – tend to suffer some degree of cognitive decline is in part due to a reduction in blood flow to the brain.”16

On the other hand, “Exercisers showed significant improvements in the higher mental processes of memory and in “executive functions” that involve planning, organization, and the ability to mentally juggle different intellectual tasks at the same time.” 17

How many people are aware that school children who spend almost 5 hours each day on the computer, watching TV, or playing video games may develop Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), slowing their blood circulation which then allows clots to form and eventually, break free, causing death? 18

Another benefit of aerobic exercise is decreased depression. “Aerobic exercise stimulates neurotransmitters in our brain to produce serotonin, an endorphin which make us feel good. And exercise, unlike antidepressants, has no negative side effects.” 19 Anti-depressant drugs should be avoided because they can interfere with brain biochemistry and there is limited knowledge of how drugs affect the brain.20

Fatty Acids

Neurons are the brain cells that communicate with each other. Their cell membranes are made up of fatty acid molecules, taken from the fat in food which is broken down during digestion. One of the most common fatty acids in myelin -the protective sheath that covers neurons, is oleic acid; the most abundant fatty acid in human milk and in our diet.21 Monosaturated oleic acid is found in olive oil and the oils from almonds, pecans, macadamias, peanuts, and avocados.22

To build brain cells you need fatty acids. There are two essential (meaning they are derived from food and aren’t manufactured by the body) fatty acids. The first, Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is the foundation of the “omega-3″ family of fatty acids. Omega-3 ALA is found in flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, sea vegetables, and green leafy vegetables. The second, Linoleic acid (LA), is the foundation of the “omega-6″ family of fatty acids. Omega-6 LA includes expeller cold-pressed sunflower, safflower, corn, and sesame oils.23

On the one hand, fatty acids can boost intelligence. On the other hand, an imbalance may be linked to hyperactivity, depression, brain allergies, and schizophrenia. The correct balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids may delay or reduce brain function diseases; such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, both of which exhibit a loss of fatty acids in the membranes.24 Sadly, “Western diets tend to have at least twenty times more omega-6 fats (from meat and dairy) than omega-3 fats.”25 The remedy; eat more omega-3-rich fish and flax seed oil, less sugar, and completely avoid trans fatty acids found in partially-hydrogenated oils, margarine, and shortening. Oils and salad dressings should be avoided unless they are clearly labeled “cold-pressed” – or in the case of olive oil, “extra virgin.”26

The Case Against Trans Fatty Acids

“Trans unsaturated fatty acids are produced commercially in large quantities by heating vegetable oils in the presence of metal catalysts and hydrogen to form shortening and margarine… Partial hydrogenation, the process used to create trans fatty acids, is primarily used to produce solid fats. However, it also removes essential polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as linolenic acid (omega 3) and linoleic acid (omega 6), because they tend to oxidize, causing the fat to become rancid with prolonged storage or when exposed to the high temperatures used for commercial deep-fat frying.”27

Trans fatty acids disrupt communication in your brain. Trans fats reduce blood vessel function and lower (good) HDL-cholesterol even more than saturated fats. Both increase (bad) LDL-cholesterol levels. Trans fats are abundant in french fries, margarine, potato chips and anything made out of partially hydrogenated oil.28

On a molecular level, normal fatty acids have a natural curve. However, when processed or heated (deep fried), fat molecules mutate and the fatty acids become straighter and narrower. In this altered state they, “pack more tightly together into the cell membrane, making it more saturated and rigid – less flexible and less able to function properly.”

Modifying natural fats alters, “the basic building blocks of the human brain – weakening the brain’s architecture.” 29

Protein and Amino Acids

By now it should be clear that optimal brain function is connected to a healthy and efficient cerebral vascular system. One of the bloodstream’s functions is to keep brain cells from overheating because if there wasn’t a network of cranial veins, heat generated by brain activity would burn out its cells. Amino acids found in dietary protein and which are used to create proteins, are the building blocks of this network. 30

Dietary protein is broken down into 20 amino acids which then help form 50,000 different proteins essential to the function of our bodies. Examples of proteins formed from amino acids include neurotransmitters and chromosomes, hormones and enzymes.31

There are two groups of dietary proteins. Complete proteins, such as fish, meat, fowl, eggs, cheese, and yogurt, contain ample amounts of all eight essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins, such as grains and legumes, seeds and nuts, and other foods provide only some of the essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins can be combined to obtain all necessary amino acids. For instance, rice and beans can be combined to make a complete protein. 32

A meal high in protein will raise tyrosine levels in the blood and brain; causing neurons to manufacture norepinephrine and dopamine, neurotransmitters that promote alertness and activity. Tyrosine is also involved in making active thyroid hormones. An underactive thyroid gland can be indicated in cretinism; a form of severe mental retardation. Tyrosine is found in almonds, avocados, bananas, dairy products, lima beans, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.33

Norepinephrine, or noradrenalin, travels in the bloodstream arousing brain activity; helping with motivation, alertness, and concentration. It is essential to forming short and long term memories. Metabolic rate is also influenced by norepinephrine.34

Dopamine is necessary for healthy assertiveness, sexual arousal, and proper immune and autonomic nervous system function. Important in motivation or feeling ready to meet life’s challenges, dopamine can be depleted by stress, poor sleep, alcohol, caffeine and sugar. Age-related cognitive decline is associated with dopamine changes in the brain. People suffering from Parkinson’s disease and whose hands tremble have diminished ability to synthesize dopamine, which is crucial to fine muscle
coordination. Attention deficits are also associated with dopamine levels.35

While tyrosine has an energizing effect, tryptophan has a calming effect. Serotonin is synthesized from tryptophan. The brain’s tryptophan levels and serotonin levels are associated with contentment and normal sleep. Serotonin is found in the central nervous system, the walls of the intestine and in cells that promote blood clotting. It helps regulate memory, learning, blood pressure, appetite, and body temperature. Low serotonin contributes to insomnia, depression, aggressive behavior, increased sensitivity to pain, and is associated with obsessive-compulsive eating disorders. Tryptophan is found in brown rice, cottage cheese, meat, peanuts, and sesame seeds.36

Carbohydrates Fuel Your Brain

Glucose (a form of sugar) traveling the bloodstream, indirectly fuels the brain, whose neurons demand a never ending supply of energy since they are in a continuous state of metabolic activity. Thinking, which can be exhausting, rapidly uses up glucose during mental activity. Concentration drains glucose from a part of the brain associated with memory and learning, therefore, the contents and timing of meals may need to be coordinated to enhance learning.37

Complex carbohydrates, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provide more sustained energy than simple carbohydrates which are responsible for bursts of energy and found in most processed or refined foods such as pastries.38 “In natural foods, the cell walls are made of cellulose fiber that resists digestion, slowing the breakdown and the subsequent release of sugars into the bloodstream, kind of like the way a time-release capsule works.”39

Simple carbohydrates break apart and enter the bloodstream quickly.40 “Sugary foods–including corn syrup, fruit juices, and honey–contain glucose that is absorbed directly through the stomach wall and rapidly released into the bloodstream, almost as quickly as if delivered by syringe.”41 A gradual release of glucose minimizes blood sugar swings, optimizing brainpower and mental focus.42

Eating a sugary snack or drinking a soft drink quickly raises blood sugar and provides a short lived energy boost. Large amounts of sugar causes the pancreas to secrete insulin, which triggers cells to pull excess glucose out of the bloodstream to store for later use. Neurons, unable to store glucose, experience an “energy crisis” which in turn affects a person’s ability to focus and think. Glucose deficiency, called hypoglycemia, can lead to unconsciousness.43

Soda and Vitamin Deficiencies

Soda consumption among children aged 2 to 17 years rose 41% between the years 1989-1995.44 This is a big problem because consuming large quantities of pop can cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Sugar contained in soft drinks depletes magnesium. High levels of phosphoric acid may combine with calcium and magnesium during digestion, and deplete these vital minerals.45 Phosphoric acid is, “used to acidify foods and beverages such as various colas, but not without controversy as to its health effects. It provides a tangy taste, and being an agro-industrial chemical, is available cheaply and in large quantities. The low cost and bulk availability is unlike more expensive natural seasonings that give comparable flavors, such as ginger for tangyness, or citric acid for sourness, obtainable from lemons and limes.”46


Onset of Type 2 diabetes can occur when the bloodstream is repeatedly overloaded with sugar, gradually diminishing the body’s ability to respond to insulin. Diabetics can experience a narrowing of the arteries, leading to tiny strokes and gradual brain damage. Also, they’re likelier to suffer declining mental ability as they age, as well as a slower ability to process information.47 Furthermore, there is a, “9% increased risk of developing dementia – and Alzheimer’s disease.”48 Diabetes sufferers are more susceptible to depression.49 Not surprisingly, there has been an epidemic of diabetes in children in the last 20 years. People at risk for type 2 diabetes should exercise at least 30 minutes a day to prevent onset. Exercise and diet is almost twice as effective as drug therapy.50


Atmospheric pollutants, including industrial chemicals; pesticides; herbicides; paints; solvents; even tobacco smoke, expose people to free radicals which enter our bodies through the skin and lungs. Lung tissue is easily damaged by free radicals. Cigarette smoke interferes with the lungs’ ability to absorb oxygen and produces neurotoxins. Grilled and fried foods also introduce free radicals, through ingestion.51

Consuming an adequate amount of anti-oxidant rich fruits and vegetables helps protect the body from cell damage. This is because antioxidants donate their electrons to “free radicals” in order to prevent them from stealing electrons from membrane fatty acids, mitochondria, DNA, and elsewhere; effectively sacrificing themselves to preserve other body parts. 52

Vitamin E combats free radicals, to ensure red blood cells and capillaries deliver oxygen to brain cells unimpeded. Just one vitamin E molecule will protect 200 fatty acid molecules in the bloodstream from toxically combining with oxygen; which would diminish oxygen available to the brain.55 Processed foods, alcohol, tobacco, or smog increase the need for vitamin E. In addition, fatigue, stress, and pollution deplete it. Heat, oxygen, freezing, and chlorine destroy vitamin E. 56 Vitamin E and selenium work powerfully in tandem. 57

Selenium detoxifies heavy metals that damage the brain and other organs. By binding itself to mercury, lead, arsenic, and cadmium, all of which disrupt brain chemistry by displacing important minerals like iron, zinc, and copper, selenium grabs hold of these molecules and removes them from brain cells.58

Lutein, the pigment that gives corn and marigolds their golden color and which is found in carrots, oranges, eggs, and dark leafy greens, such as; spinach, kale, and collard greens, may provide protection against atherosclerosis.59 Plant derived antioxidants, which are blue in color (such as blueberries), are particularly beneficial for the brain because they, “contain the highest level of antioxidants – nearly 60 times the recommended daily levels.” 60 Because proanthocyanidins (flavenoids found in green tea, black tea, and grape skin) are the first to neutralize free radicals, they leave vitamins free to carry out their metabolic functions, instead being summoned to combat free radicals. 61

Vitamin C is easily destroyed by water, heat, light, and oxygen. Drying fruits cause them to lose much of their vitamin C, while freezing has no appreciable effect. Aspirin accelerates vitamin C’s excretion from the body, and secondhand smoke lowers the levels of vitamin C in children by 20%. Smoking an actual cigarette is worse. Stress hormones deplete the C vitamin and it is lost through perspiration. 62

B Vitamins

B vitamins, such as folic acid found in leafy greens, dry beans and peas, fortified cereals and grain products, and certain fruits and vegetables may prevent stroke by reducing homocysteine, an amino acid that damages blood vessels.63

Phosphatidyl choline, found in lecithin, is a fat-like substance that’s necessary to metabolize fats. Lecithin can be found in egg yolks, wheat germ, soybeans, organ meats, and whole wheat products.64

Acetylcholine, an excitatory neurotransmitter, chemically carries thought and memory. It plays a roll in memory storage and recall, and in concentration and focus. It is also related to muscular coordination. Acetylcholine deficit contributes to memory decline and reduced cognitive capacity. Acetylcholine, unlike neurotransmitters previously discussed, is not made from amino acids. Choline, which is consumed, helps produce acetylcholine.65

Vitamin B1, found in whole grains, eggs, beans, fresh leafy green vegetables, wheat germ, and brewers’ or nutritional yeast helps the nervous system function properly and contributes to mental health. An individual with a mild B1 deficiency can become irritable, apathetic, and forgetful. It helps glucose convert into brain energy and to create myelin.66

B12 is found in fish, meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs. B12 deficiency can cause memory and balance disturbances, reduced sensation in the limbs, severe nerve damage, and dementia. Because B12 is not well absorbed through digestion, supplements are recommended.67

Vitamin B6 increases levels of magnesium in plasma and red blood cells. Magnesium deficiency increases risk of cardiovascular damage. High intakes of fat and/or calcium can render levels of magnesium inadequate to deal with physical stresses, such as; exertion, heat, cold, trauma, burns, or emotional, such as pain, anxiety, excitement, or depression. Asthma also increases the demand for magnesium. Because magnesium is found in many foods but only in small amounts, a single food will not fulfill daily requirements. A variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains must be eaten to meet the necessary amount. 68

Because B vitamins are water-soluble and not retained in the body, they must be replenished regularly through diet. They can be destroyed through high-temperature cooking or commercial food-processing. B vitamins are easily depleted by caffeine, alcohol, excessive consumption of sugar, smoking, prescription drugs, exercise, and stress. 69

Nutritional Literacy

Clearly, the civic mission of our schools should include advancing a healthy, high functioning citizenry. A school wellness plan which promotes nutritional literacy will go a long way toward advancing this goal. While food pyramids and medical opinions can help people determine how best to take care of their bodies, it is likelier that a deeper knowledge of exactly how food and exercise advance good health will generate more people to take better care of themselves. Healthy bodies equal healthy minds.


16- 18, 21 – 26, 28-46, 48-69 The Human Brain

14 A Model that Works

19, 20 Beat the blues with exercise

2, 5 Feed It To The Kids

1 Haute Cafeteria

9, 10, 12, 13, 15 May 2005 “Focus on School Food” Healthy Schools

46 Phosphoric Acid

4 Potato Chips, Cola And Sweets, Oh My!

6, 8, 11 School Food Revolution

3 School Lunch Crunch

7 School lunches: weapons of mass destruction?

27 Trans Fatty Acids

Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act

Nancy Salvato works as a Head Start teacher in Illinois. She is also the President of The Basics Project, ( a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy.

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