Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition

11th November 2005 at 00:00
You need to be eating a proper diet if you want to teach well. Alex Gazzola offers guidelines to help you keep on top of your health - and your pupils

It's your first week on a teaching placement. You're tired, excited but slightly stressed, and eating whatever, and whenever, you can.You have so much to think about, remember and worry over. Well here's another: you might not think what you eat is that important, but your performance in front of the class should be your top priority.

How familiar are you with what your body needs to meet the physical and psychological demands you're placing upon it? Probably not enough.

"Many newly qualified teachers struggle to adjust to eating healthily within the framework of a structured working day," says Teresa Dupay, a nutritional therapist working in schools.

"Some are still hungover from student days of lie-ins and eating whenever they want - but it's important they learn."

Nutritional advice that is relevant and interesting to frantic new teachers is quite hard to come by. Thanks largely to Jamie Oliver, pupils' diets have been subject to intense scrutiny and improvements in the last year, but some specialists are concerned that teachers' diets are being neglected - not least by the teachers themselves.

"This is especially true of new teachers who desperately want to do well in their new job, and are constantly worrying about deadlines and lesson preparation," says Raffaella Piovesan, dietitian for Avenance, a schools catering firm. "In that scenario, nutrition can take low priority."

Skipping breakfast is the undoing of many. Late running in the morning is the usual excuse, but others can't stomach food so early. Yet a good breakfast is the key to kick-starting your metabolism and to replenishing energy levels.

"If you can't face food first thing," says Ms Piovesan, "drink a yogurt and fruit smoothie instead. It'll nourish you until mid-morning break, when you can have a proper breakfast of muesli, porridge or wholegrain cereal."

Ah, yes - a mid-morning break. An ideal thing for many teachers, far removed from reality.

"Teachers rarely know how their days will go," says Ms Dupay. "Often, breaks are swallowed up at short notice with pupils' problems or covering for absent colleagues.

"When teachers do get a moment, it's too easy to grab unhealthy snacks like chocolate or cake from vending machines - precisely what they should avoid.

These give short-lived blood-sugar and energy boosts, followed by a crash within half an hour.

"That can have a catastrophic effect on concentration, mood and classroom performance."

Both experts suggest supplies of nutritious, slow energy-release provisions:

* Pack your school bag with raw fruits, pieces of dried fruit, bags of unsalted nuts and seeds, and no-sugar fruit and cereal bars.

lLunches, whether packed or canteen-bought, should feature energy-rich, non-refined carbohydrates, such as brown pasta or rice, wholegrain bread or a baked potato, tempered with a little protein - cheese, eggs, lean meats, fish, pulses or beans - which act to slow down the digestive process and ensure gradual, long-term energy release. Fish has the additional benefit of being rich in essential fatty acids - perfect brain food for concentration.

* Avoid rushing your food. Eating in company - with colleagues or pupils - can help.

"A complaint I hear constantly from new young teachers is 'We're too stressed to take time over our food', but if you don't, you're not letting your body do its job," says Ms Dupay. "Digestion is an emotional as well as physical process, and stress can impede digestive enzymes. You have to find those 10 calm minutes to eat properly."

If the only time you can relax and eat something is during a class while pupils are busy with an exercise, then you should do so. While eating on the hoof leads to indigestion and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, both of which afflict many teachers, more severe food sensitivities are a longer-term possibility

Worryingly, YorkTest Laboratories, a company specialising in private food intolerance testing, reports that, of the professional groups ordering their home-testing kits online, the greatest proportion are teachers.

So how to stay well? "Do your homework and plan ahead," says Ms Piovesan, "or you'll stress, pick an inappropriate food and buy poor snacks.

"Most importantly, have breakfast - you should find the rest of the day will pan out well. If you don't, you'll make yourself vulnerable."

Alex Gazzola is author of 'Living with Food Intolerance' (Sheldon, Pounds 7.99)Teresa Dupay: www.nutritionplusltd.comYorkTest Laboratories:


How good are NQTs' lunches? Experts assess the diets of two new staff at Battersea technology college, south-west London

Natalie Hall, 30, is in her first year teaching dance. Her packed lunch was a home-made wholemeal pasta salad with sweetcorn and onion in a tomato and pesto dressing, an apple, an Innocent smoothie and unsalted cashew nuts.

"I choose wholemeal pasta as it's gentler on my stomach," she says, "and white pasta tends to aggravate my IBS (irritable bowel syndrome ). I avoid large snacks or meals as I can't keep active on a full stomach. I nibble cashews to maintain physical energy levels, but by five o'clock I'm often so exhausted that I'm trembling and craving sugar and chocolate, which I usually give in to,just to get rid of the shakes.'

Teresa Dupay, nutritional therapist, writes "Natalie needs high-energy and nutrient intake to keep her active, and is not eating enough. She should bulk up that salad with tuna, cheese, beans, pulses, spinach or walnuts.

Although wholemeal pasta is more nutritious than white, it's still a wheat pasta, which is often implicated in IBS. She should experiment with buckwheat, corn or rice pastas, and may find she can comfortably eat larger portions. Cashews are good snacks, but walnuts, Brazils, almonds and olives are oilier and have more calories, which I feel she needs.

Shaking is a sign blood sugar has dipped too low. A mid-afternoon pure cereal bar will help, and a banana or grapes will relieve trembling quickly and naturally."


Breakfast: A smoothie if you can't manage solids, but otherwise choose muesli, wholegrain cereal, fruits and yoghurts. White bread toast and jam washed down with sweetened tea is rapidly metabolised in the body and won't sustain you until the lunch bell.


According to the British Nutrition Foundation, a dehydration level of just 2 per cent - not even enough to stimulate your thirst - can affect concentration levels by a staggering 30 per cent. Take a water bottle into class and take regular sips. Despite the dire warnings of water evangelists, other fluids - fruit juices, herbal teas - count too.

Caffeine: Coffee and tea are stimulants which force energy levels to rise sharply, only to come crashing down later. Two cups during the day are fine, but any more and you're risking sluggishness and concentration lapses. Although often demonised as diuretics, caffeinated drinks only mildly dehydrate if you drink more than you're used to. A lesser known side-effect of coffee is that it can irritate the gut, making symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and food intolerance much more likely.

Snacking: Mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks should be aimed at maintaining energy levels and pre-empting pre-lunch and late-in-the-day hunger. Make up a mixed bag of home-made muesli with rolled oats, chopped dried fruit, nuts and seeds of your choice to nibble throughout the day - especially good for PE teachers. Sugary snacks merely spike your blood sugar levels, giving you a maximum of 30 minutes benefit, followed by a deep slump.

Exercise: During a free period, a 10-minute walk around the school playing field will serve as an appetite stimulant and head-clearing mental invigorator - ideal if you're cooped up in classrooms for the entire day.


Tamika Smith, 30, teaches history. Her canteen-bought lunch was hot pasta with tomato and vegetable sauce, a pear, a bottle of mineral water, and iced sponge cake (left).

Tamika says: "I tend to choose carbohydrate-heavy meals because I find they keep me going throughout the day, especially when I'm working late and need to concentrate for long hours. By 5pm, though, I get very hungry. I often have fruit, but if I don't, I'll snack on crisps and chocolate from the vending machine in the staffroom and that will ruin my whole day - I notice that my concentration and performance tend to go up and down with my sugar levels."

Raffaella Piovesan, dietitian, writes: "Tamika's choice was high in low-GI foods, which ensure a steady release of sugar into the bloodstream, avoiding any instant sugar rush and post-sugar slump, but was quite low in protein, which would slow down digestion and keep her going for longer.

She should try including some cheese, eggs or pulses in her meal. As part of lunch, the cake is fine - it's a good kick-start to her afternoon energy needs.

Tammie should also consider including mixed side salads or fruit salads in her diet which are always brilliant additional choices, and are rich in many vitamins and nutrients."

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