Childhood Nutrition and Academic Achievement

nutrition and academic achievement

“The brain is composed of a highly complex network of
 neurons – which are made from, and directly affected by, what we eat.”

Americans spend $200 billion each year on diet-related health care costs – twice
 as much per person, per year than any other developed nation in the world. Nine
 million American children and teenagers are currently overweight – a figure
 that has tripled since 1980. Health practitioners are witnessing “soaring rates
 of asthma, ADHD, anxiety, autism, learning disorders and depression among
 children,” and yet – despite the costs, despite the consequences – schools
 continue to feed our children unhealthy foods.

A bad diet does more than pack on the pounds – it impacts your student’s
 cognitive development, academic performance, and participation in school. Poor 
nutrition isn’t just about “getting fat” (although social insecurities often 
accompany obesity and cause children to withdraw from their peers; overweight
 children suffer from higher rates of anxiety disorders and depression). As Dr.
 Stephanie Peabody, executive director of the Mind, Brain and Education 
Initiative, explains, “The brain is composed of a highly complex network of
 neurons – which are made from, and directly affected by, what we eat.” The Action for Healthy Kids organization (founding chairman is former Surgeon
 General, Dr. David Satchel) offered a similar explanation in its 2004 report,
 The Learning Connection: “Inadequate consumption of key food groups deprives
 children of essential vitamins, minerals, fats, and proteins that are necessary 
for optimal cognitive function.” How does this all play out in the classroom? 
Let’s take a look at some research.

A study that compared obese children (aged 8-13) with children who had normal
 height/weight ratios found that the healthier children “had significantly
 better performance in IQ than those in the obese group, had a wider range of 
interests, better capacity for social adaptability, and greater speed and 
dexterity.” Likewise, a nutrition and health survey that studied 2,222 children in Taiwan elementary schools found that “unfavorable overall school
 performance was positively associated with unhealthful eating patterns.” The
 same study concluded that “children with high intakes of sweets and fried foods
 were 1.5 times more likely to have unfavorable overall performance.” (This
 conclusion is especially alarming for the American population, where 56-85% of
 children – depending on age and gender – consume soda daily; over one third of 
teenagers consume more than three servings of soda a day.)

These results are anything but uncommon. A 2009 study of Massachusetts students
 found that “the odds of passing the state math and English tests increased as a
 student’s fitness increased.” A similar California study revealed that
 “students with higher fitness scores had better SAT/9 test scores for reading 
and math.” A project conducted in Thailand, surveying 2,252 primary school
 children, found that overweight students are at a “greater risk of low GPA.” 
And a study in Philadelphia, focused on 104 3rd and 4th graders, showed that 
obese children are “twice as likely to be placed in special education or
 remedial classes.” The list goes on and on.

Unhealthy foods have a negative effect on our students’ ability to learn,
 perform, and succeed. According to The Learning Connection report,
 “Well-nourished children tend to be better students, while poorly nourished
 children tend to have weaker academic performance and score lower on
 standardized achievement tests.” So why are we putting up with unhealthy foods 
in our children’s schools? What can we do to make a change? Filmmaker Amy
 Kalafa, along with Dr. Susan Rubin, created the documentary Two Angry Moms to
 address those very questions. Journeying outside of the home and into the cafeteria, Kalafa and Rubin draw
 attention to lunch menus filled with chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, and pizza.
 Their crusade also reveals some startling statistics: While the cost of fresh
 fruits and vegetables has risen 40% in the past twenty years, the cost of soda,
 sweets, fats, and oils has decreased by as much as 20% in the same time.

The Center for Disease Control warns: “We are facing a childhood obesity 
epidemic. This generation will be the first in the nation’s history to live
 shorter lives than those of their parents.” As only 2% of school-aged children
 consume the recommended daily servings of each major food group, it’s not
 surprising that one in four children already takes daily medication for chronic
 illness. But hope is not lost. We can take control of our children’s futures. 
By working together, advocating change, and setting a good example we can 
change the face of tomorrow. Not sure where to start? Like most change, this
 movement starts from home.

Teach your children to appreciate whole foods. (This means cutting out processed 
foods and serving healthy, family dinners like grilled chicken with brown rice 
and vegetables.) Pack well-balanced lunches and educate your children about
 “danger” ingredients (such as hydrogenated oil and high-fructose corn syrup).
To make a bigger difference, try joining (or founding!) your school’s wellness
 committee to raise awareness and advocate change.

As Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General, said, “You cannot educate a 
child who is not healthy and you cannot keep a child healthy who is not
 educated.” The food choices our children make now will shape the rest of their 
lives. It’s time to work together to make those lives as healthy and happy as

EDITOR’S NOTE: Article originally written for the course, Mind, Brain, Health, and Education (Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA).


Action for Healthy Kids. (2004). Learning Connection: The Value of Improving Nutrition
 and Physical Activity in Our Schools. Retrieved April 18, 2010.

Cheng, L., Fu, M-L., Pan, W-H., Tu, S-H. (2007). Association between unhealthful
 eating patterns and unfavorable overall school performance in children. Journal
 of the American Dietetic Association, 107, 1935-1943.

Nemours Foundation. (2009). Healthy students = successful students. Retrieved 
April 7, 2010.

Peabody, S. (2010, April). Emotions, Stress, Social Engagement and MBHE. Lecture 
given in Mind, Brain, Health, and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA.

Potts-Datema, W., Taras, H. (2005). Obesity and student performance at school.
 Journal of School Health, 75, 291-295.

Two Angry Moms . (n.d.). Just the Facts. Retrieved April 16, 2010.


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