How Food Affects School Performance

How Food Affects School Performance

Or, you are what you eat

We already know that eating healthy is good for growth and development, but did you know that it’s also associated with higher academic achievement?

Studies on children and adolescents (ages 5-18) have long focused on breakfast consumption and how it affects academic achievement. These studies have shown a positive association when children eat more fruit, vegetables, and micronutrients including folate and iron. Lowering the consumption of junk foods has also been associated with higher academic achievement.

Similar studies have not typically focused on college-age students. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information however, seven recent studies reviewed the impact of diet on college student performance in school. While a number of factors and health behaviors can have an effect on academic achievement, college students’ eating habits have received much less attention than factors like sleep deprivation, poor mental health status, and alcohol use. Not surprisingly, the studies found that consuming a regular breakfast, eating 2-3 meals per day, and consuming more servings of fruit had a positive correlation between GPA and dietary intake/behavior.

Eating Habits of Students with Higher Grades

In 2019, the CDC published the results of a national Youth Risk Behavior Survey which showed that students with higher academic grades were more likely to engage in healthy dietary behaviors than students with lower grades. While this does not prove causation, these associations still have significance.

They found that students with higher grades were more likely to eat breakfast on all 7 days of the week; eat fruit or drink 100% fruit juice one or more times per day; eat vegetables one or more times per day; and were not drinking soda or pop. Interestingly, there was not an association between drinking milk and academic grades.

Can Some Eating Habits Actually Hinder Learning?

According to Neuroscience News, consuming refined sugars and saturated fats can have detrimental effects on the brain. “High-fat and processed-food diets are also associated with lower cognitive function and memory in humans and animal models as well as a higher incidence of neurodegenerative diseases. However, researchers still don’t know if these effects are due to these foods or to the weight gain and insulin resistance that develop with long-term consumption of these diets.”

Early Nutrition Shapes the Brain

Stony Brook University researchers conducted a study that showed there is a strong relationship between what we eat early in life, as babies or young children, and what our food preferences will be as adults. The study also found that what we eat early in life suggests a link between taste and brain function in health and disease. Arianna Maffei, PhD, Senior Author and Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Stony Brook University explained, “Expanding our knowledge of the developmental neural circuits for tastes – as studies like this do – will contribute to our understanding of food choices, eating disorders, and diseases associated with brain disorders.”

There’s a Link Between Food, Mood, and Learning

An Australian study found that young people with the unhealthiest diets were nearly 80% more likely to suffer from depression. These children also exhibited more emotional and behavioral problems than children with healthy eating habits. Research from the National Institutes of Health and from the British Journal of Nutrition showed that what children eat can improve mental health, enhance cognitive skills like concentration and memory, and improve academic performance.

Accessing Healthy Food – The Economic Link

Nutrition is key to brain development, however access to healthy food can be a challenge to those with lower incomes. Diets high in vegetables and healthy proteins cost more than diets rich in processed foods and refined grains. This cost disparity has been increasing since the mid 2000s.

In addition, many people in the United States have limited access to supermarkets and other sources of more healthy foods. These areas are often called “food deserts” and can cause families to turn to fast food or convenience store items.

This lack of nutrition can lead to stunted mental and physical development in young children. Children with diets lacking in fresh fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins tend to have lower test scores and can also end up missing school or having to repeat grades.

Organizations like Health Start Foundation and Action for Healthy Kids provide helpful guidance on eating healthy on a budget, and Healthline has published a list of 28 Healthy Foods That Are Incredibly Cheap.