How Does Healthy Eating Affect Student Learning?
Research shows adolescents, grade school students and university students learn better when they’re well nourished. Healthy eating has been linked to higher grades, better memory, more alertness, faster information processing and improved health leading to better school attendance, according to registered dietitian Elisa Zied, author of “Feed Your Family Right.”
Conversely, unhealthy eating habits can negatively affect learning. Researchers have studied a number of areas in health education and health promotion related to eating and learning when looking at eating behaviors, healthy food choices and healthy meals, dietary needs, physical activity, healthy diet and overall well-being for students’ health. Researchers encourage nutrition education for those adolescents and students looking to improve their eating and dietary habits.
What are Some Effects of Healthy Eating for Students?
- Start the Day Right
Skipping breakfast can have a negative impact on learning: A higher percentage of breakfast eaters passed a biology exam in one study of college students by Gregory Phillips. It’s also important to eat a high-quality breakfast. In a study of students 12 to 13 years old, the average mark increased as breakfast quality improved.
In another study of students and their food intakes from ages 11 to 14, eating a breakfast with foods low on the glycemic index (GI) was associated with faster information processing. Low-GI foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole-grain breads and cereals, according to Zied. The consumption of fruit in a student’s morning may help them throughout the day with overall improved results.
- Boost the Memory
Even with breakfast, the brain can run out of fuel before lunch. In one study of students ages 7 to 9, having a midmorning snack improved memory. The children who ate a smaller breakfast and lunch but consumed a midmorning snack experienced a smaller decline in immediate and delayed memory. Attention was not affected, however.
Zied recommends yogurt with blueberries; this fruit has been linked to better memory in studies. A hard-boiled egg is also a good snack choice because eggs contain choline, a nutrient shown to improve memory in animal studies. Academic achievement can also be affected by the boost in memory due to diet.
- Stay Alert
Kids who eat healthy are more likely to be in school and participating, instead of dealing with absences or cognition issues. Without proper nutrition and adequate calories, students often don’t have enough energy to power the brain, resulting in fatigue and learning problems.
In fact, alertness improved significantly in students eating breakfast in one study of high school students published in the journal of Pediatrics. The male students also reported health behavior like feeling more positive, and it may improve academic performance by making students more eager to learn, according to Zied.
- Trashing Junk Food
Students who eat lots of junk food, processed foods and fast food are more likely to fall behind in school and likely have more health problems. A study of public school students published in the Journal of School Health linked high intake of sweetened beverages, such as sugary sodas or soft drinks, to lower scores on math tests. A diet high in unhealthy food and sugary sodas is also linked to childhood obesity, which could result in lower cognitive functioning, according to 2011 Yale University research.
On the other hand, students with healthy eating habits are less likely to be obese and more likely to learn well. School lunch options or school meals in cafeterias, packed lunches and vending machines can be a big factor in the availability of junk foods in a students nutritional diet and child health overall. With healthier foods being offered in these settings, students may be more inclined to live a healthy lifestyle.
Dr. Kelly Meier earned her doctorate from Minnesota State Mankato in Educational Leadership. She is the author and co-author of 12 books and serves as a consultant in K-12 and higher education. Dr. Meier is is a regular contributor for The Equity Network and has worked in education for more than 30 years.