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 possible.
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.