Published on International Journal of Food & Nutrition
ISSN: 2311-357X, Volume 1, Issue 2, page 13 – 27
Publication Date: March 13, 2019
Lecturer in the Department of Consumer Science Education and Community Development
University of Eswatini, Luyengo Campus
This study sought to establish the relationship of food group intake and academic performance of college students. The quantitative approach was used and data were analysed using Pearson’s correlation co-efficient at 1% and 5% significance levels in the SPSS version 23.0. The population of the study was the student teachers in a college of teacher training in Matabeleland south in Zimbabwe. The sample comprised of 100 students purposively selected from different main subject areas offered in the college. The study concluded that adequate and sufficient healthy intake of food is essential for the appropriate functioning of the brain. Without adequate food, the brain lacks the necessary nutrients that enhance its ability to carry out the so much energy-consuming intellectual activities such as comprehension, evaluation and application which students must demonstrate when they are learning. The study recommends that food should not merely be directed at ensuring food security for all, but should also achieve the consumption of adequate quantities of safe and good quality foods from different food groups that together make up healthy diets which promote brain functioning.
Keywords: Dietary intake, Food group, Nutrients & Academic performance.
The study and understanding of nutrition and brain function has not been given much attention in relation to human learning in the sub-Saharan Africa (Helwig, 2009). Information Processing Model is one of the theoretical lenses through which the researcher appraises issues in this study in order to understand the coordinated functioning of the transmission of neural impulses that take place in the brain cells during the processing of information. It is the researcher’s contention that for the proper information to occur in a student while involved in learning, the brain cells must be well nourished. In conjunction with the physiological explanation of motivated behaviour through satisfaction of food that Maslow offers the proper functioning of the neurological system has a bearing on one’s physiological arousal such as the motivation to learn or lack of it. Thus, in a bid to satisfy the higher order level of human self-actualisation, the human organism must have an active neural system as a result of food intake from different food groups.
While much work has been done on the influence of factors such as college type, location, parental involvement, family structure and gender on academic performance of college students in Zimbabwe (Mpofu, 2009), the researcher could not lay hold on any study that considered the effects of food group intake on the learning process and outcomes among college students in Zimbabwe.
According to Barker (2002), cognition occurs through activity within the brain’s structure and the brain is mainly made up of nerve cells known as neurons and glial cells that support the neurons. Brain development starts three weeks after conception, when neurons begin to form and to multiply, and develop rapidly from the second trimester of pregnancy through the first year of life so that by age one, a baby has about 100 billion neurons and will maintain roughly the same amount through adulthood (Kagan, 2009).
Though stable in number, these neurons continue to grow and change dramatically based on the unique activities they are stimulated to undertake (Crichton, Bryan, Murphy & Buckley, 2010)). In order for any human action to occur, neurons must communicate with each other. Neurotransmission, which is the communication between neurons, happens when one neuron’s axon sends information out of its cell and another neuron’s dendrite picks up the information. The number of synapses decreases as connections become more efficient and networks of connections become more permanently established where during cognition, each activated synapse fires about 200 times per second (Kagan, 2009) and this is clear that cognition is an energy-expensive activity since the brain consumes a huge amount of energy in comparison to the rest of the body. According to Crichton, Bryan, Murphy & Buckley (2010), the human brain accounts for only about 2% of a person’s body weight, but consumes between 20-30% of the body’s available energy and oxygen because active neurons burn fuel to function. Therefore, mechanisms involved in the transfer of energy from foods to neurons are fundamental to the control of the brain function which determines cognition. Simply choosing different foods that fuel the brain can have a significant effect on academic performance. Eating certain foods can improve ability to focus, retain information and remain mentally alert in order to get through the most gruelling of study sessions. The best are foods that not only fill the belly, but feed the brain as well, enabling better grades.
Murakami et al., (2008) assert that all cells in the human body, including neurons and glial cells, derive energy from food calories in the form of macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Before cells can gain energy from food, it must be converted into simple sugars, especially in the form of glucose, a simple sugar that is the primary source of fuel for the brain, nervous system, and red blood cells, and a preferred energy source for all other bodily cells and tissues. Carbohydrates provide the most efficient source of energy for the body because they easily break down into simple sugars and are quickly converted to glucose in the liver.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 55-75% of humans’ calories come from carbohydrate, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, of at 45-65% (WHO Expert Consultation, 2004). Likewise, U.S. dietary guidelines recommend a higher ratio of calories coming from fat (25-35%) and protein (10-30%) than those of the WHO (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [USDHH] and U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA], (2005). Using either protein or fat for energy requires extra work during conversion to glucose, produces toxic by-products, and depletes the body of protein and fat needed for other bodily functions (Davis & Melina, 2010; Graham, 2006). Therefore, to minimise exertion of extra work on the already overloaded brain, it would seem more reasonable to adopt the WHO recommendations for carbohydrate as the major source of energy which is less expensive to convert into glucose.
Food also fortifies the body with micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) that are involved with a variety of processes that promote neural survival. In addition, micronutrients synthesise brain chemicals called neurotransmitters that are responsible for carrying information across synapses, and support efficient transmission along these pathways. Deficiencies or excesses of certain vitamins or minerals can damage nerves in the brain, causing changes in memory, limiting problem-solving ability and impairing brain function (Mpofu et al., 2018).
As an energy-expensive organ, the brain, therefore, requires adequate energy in the form of glucose and sufficient nutrients to function properly (Helland, et al., 2003). The brain’s energy needs are elevated throughout childhood, which suggests a more crucial need for suitable nutrition during development. The technologies that allow scientists to monitor energy metabolism in the brain provide detailed information about brain activity in various cognitive processes. In relation to academic achievement, some studies imply that students with an insufficient glucose supply or nutrient deficits will have compromised cognitive potential (Helland, et al., 2003).
Maximising brain function is a prime factor in seizing appropriate cognitive capability for example, ability to focus, comprehension, evaluation and application in learning (Kretchmer, Beard & Carlson, 1996). The literature thus illustrates the fact that there seems to exist a direct relationship between the intake of food as a basic, physiological need that Maslow emphasises and the functioning of the mind as a means of attaining the growth need of academic achievement. If the students are exposed to deficiency in protein, the malnourished brain cells may inhibit cognitive functioning.
In view of the above literature, the researcher is of the contention that although Maslow did not attempt to explain the neurological function of food in the human body, the important assumption is that it is through the provision of adequate food that students will function well in their cognition as they would get the energy to engage with academic tasks. It is through the provision of adequate and well-nourishing food that a student’s neurological system may function well enough to facilitate effective information processing during their contact with learning materials. The researcher believes that the nutritional neuroscientific approach to explaining the link between the kind of food one takes and the way the electrochemical transmission of neurons in the brain cells happens, is relevant in regarding how physiological processes in the body may, ultimately, affect the way a student responds to learning stimuli.