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April 2017
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Strong mental commitment has always been considered a physical effort and therefore it requires adequate nutrition. Studying is something that affects people from 6 - 25 years old and in between this age range there is a lot of differentiation, for example the energy needs of a 6 year old are quite different to those of a 14 year old.
Adolescence and puberty are characterised by noticeable physical changes, psychological and behavioural development, sexual maturity and an acceleration in growth, which is irregular, unlike during childhood, and that happens suddenly and differently for males and females (to whom it normally happens earlier). This is the time when we have the greatest nutritional needs, on both a qualitative and quantitative level, since many specific nutrients are needed to build new tissues. During the initial stages of puberty, females need a lot of iron and other minerals because of the menstrual cycle and in fact, a previously incorrect food regime can bring on anaemia. This alone can be responsible for general personality changes like fatigue and lack of will to concentrate and can easily lead on to arterial hypotension. If we add to these needs the energy needed for studying, we can see that energy sources must be adequate and constant.

Results from a multipurpose survey carried out in Italy in 1993, by the Institute of National Statistics (l’Istituto nazionale di statistica), noted that the average time dedicated to studying each day increases from 2-3 hours from the age of 5 to about 4 hours between the ages of 10-13. This latter age range is when young people begin to play sport regularly too and therefore it is easy to see that energy needs are constant. However, more often than not sport and studying are not balanced and this study showed the most obese children in Europe are Italian children because they do not play enough sport. If we add the particular appetite that young people have for high calorie foods (like fast food, hamburgers, chips, etcetera) to this lack of sport, this is translated in to:

  • weight gain
  • diabetes
  • tooth decay
  • anaemia
  • food allergies and intolerances
  • delayed growth
  • hormonal changes
  • decrease in concentration

It is therefore important to pay close attention to weight gain in young people. 

Weight gain

Other than causing well known diseases (obesity, diabetes, heart diseases), gaining weight during childhood and adolescence can delay growth: an overweight child’s growth is stunted during puberty in respect to those who have healthy weight. Hormonal imbalances, caused by an excess of fat (causing accentuated oestrogen activity), is translated in to a delayed growth of the sexual organs and, for males, brings about female characteristics, such as breasts (gynecomastia).

Tooth decay 

There is continuous research in to how sugars and rich foods cause tooth decay, which is in fact a disease brought on by an infectious bacteria from the streptococci family. Of course, in every case there any many factors that come in to play, as well as the bacteria, like dental hygiene, food choice and the consumption of cariogenic foods.

cheese chewing gum sweets
butter bananas cakes and chocolate
sandwiches fruity cakes pastries
egg fruit salad cream with honey/jam
nuts sugary drinks figs and dates
meat   biscuits
fresh fruit   pears and dry apricots
milk   sugar and honey
pulses   ice cream

As in many industrialised countries, tooth decay is common, particularly amongst children. 2 large studies examined this phenomenon by means of evaluating the DMFT (average number of decayed, missing or filled teeth), a study carried out by ASSILS (the Italian Health Care Association – Associazione Assistenza Sanitaria Integrativa L) and an arbitrary study on primary school children. The average number of decayed, missing or filled teeth was actually below 1 for children under the age of 6 but 4-6 for children aged 6-13 and it amounted to 13 for adults (15-64 years old). The aim, according to the WHO (World Health Organisation) should be an average DMFT of less than 3 for children up to 12 years old. Even in this case though, dental hygiene can help but the most important way to prevent tooth decay is by eating well; it is recommended that sugar consumption is reduced and that fluoride prophylaxis for babies is implemented. In industrialised European countries the percentage of children with at least 1 decayed tooth is 68% for children aged 8-9 and 63% for 13-14 year olds.

Food allergies and intolerances

Food allergies and intolerances only involve a small number of people, either permanently or temporarily, due to anomalies in the immune system (allergies) or other types of anomalies (intolerances). In the last few years there has been an increase in the number of people with food allergies and this has been attributed to an increased stimulation of the immune system due to the number of vaccinations we receive. On the one hand, these vaccinations have reduced the number of contagious diseases however, on the other hand, they make us hypersensitive. The most common food allergy is against the protein in cows’ milk: it is common amongst babies but it can be reversed. Allergies against fish, sea food and nuts tend to remain with sufferers until adulthood though. Other food intolerances include lactose, gluten (celiac disease) and other food additive intolerances.
In the last few years the number of diagnosed cases of food intolerances have increased and in 1998, in Italy, the ISS (Higher Institute of Health – Istituto Superiore di Sanità) attempted to record the number of people with celiac disease, describe the clinical symptoms needed to diagnose it and how long it takes to manifest itself. Allergies and intolerances can, at least in some ways, be prevented and breastfeeding was actually shown to have a protective effect if continued for at least 4 months. During this period of nursing a baby, it is also a good idea to introduce different food elements (egg, fish, gluten) since once food allergies and intolerances develop, they must be diagnosed and treated with a removal of the allergenic food(s) from the diet. Not all cases of celiac disease are diagnosed and treated promptly during childhood however, and if they are not diagnosed and treated adequately, the suffers have a high possibility of contracting intestinal tumours. It is therefore necessary that once food intolerances or allergies have been detected, suffers get help removing the bad substances from their diet. Food labelling is also of fundamental importance nowadays because of food intolerances and in serious cases it can be useful to intervene with hypo-sensitisation therapy.
A final observation concerns widespread lactose intolerance: there is a tendency to prescribe formula milk to children that show symptoms of not being able to digest milk, however this accelerates the degradation of lactase in the small intestine, which can occur with age and can cause lactose intolerance in adulthood.


The main mistakes we make during childhood that affect our diet and health can be grouped in the following table:

Eating food at irregular intervals during the day. Continuing to nibble on food or leaving a lot of hours between meals. Hypovoleamia caused by an excessive intake of ‘useless calories’ that leads on to weight gain and obesity.
Not doing any sport or physical activity and eating processed and manipulated snacks. Eating whilst watching the television or whilst studying. Not knowing how to understand feelings of hunger or fullness.
Often feeling the need to chew and munch on something. Eating too many sweets or too much chewing gum. Tooth decay, ingesting air and stimulation of gastric juices on an empty stomach.
Not being used to recognising and appreciating the organoleptic qualities of foods. Being greedy. Prolonged digestion and lack of appetite for the coming meal.

It can be argued that nutritional intervention should be aimed at both preventing the previously mentioned risks and providing ‘useful’ energy for the mental and physical activity that is necessary when we are young.  Our daily food intake, which includes the consumption of at least 1.5 litres of water, should be divided in to at least 5 sections:

  1. Breakfast should be milk based, in order to promote calcium reserves, which are necessary for the bone and teeth growth (RDA 1 – 1.4g of calcium), along with cereal, which is important for releasing energy during the morning hours, and a small amount of sugar or jam to provide immediate energy.
  2. A mid-morning snack should be fruit based since fruit continues to provide energy and allows you to continue concentrating. Cakes and sweet snacks, although they are more convenient, are too rich and can break concentration.
  3. Lunch should be carbohydrate based (for example pasta) with a side of fruit or vegetables.
  4. A mid-afternoon snack should allow you to continue concentrating and studying and provide you with some energy, but not too much, like fruit, a small cake or small bit of chocolate (that has similar effects to coffee).
  5. Dinner must contain a good amount of protein since during this period we grows the most so we need a lot of protein. It is good to vary the types of protein eaten, that is eat both animal and plant protein, in order to avoid an excess consumption of fat. Eat a small amount of carbohydrates too to recuperate energy (and because it is needed when we are asleep) and always eat fruit and vegetables because they provide fibre and are essential for studying better.


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