Research shows 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 related to eating and learning.
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 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.
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.
Kids who eat healthy are more likely to be in school and participating. 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 feeling more positive, may improve academic performance by making students more eager to learn, according to Zied.
Trashing Junk Food
Students who eat lots of junk food are more likely to fall behind in school. A study of public school students published in the Journal of School Health linked high intake of sweetened beverages, such as sugary sodas to lower scores on math tests. A diet high in junk 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.
- Elisa Zied, registered dietician in New York City, author of "Feed Your Family Right" and "Nutrition at Your Fingertips"
- Nutricion Hospitalaria; A Study on Breakfast and School Performance; H. Lozano, et al.; May 2006
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition; Glycaemic Potency and Cognitive Function; R. Micha, et al.; September 2010
- Physiology & Behavior; Consumption of Snack Improves Memory; S. Muthayya, et al.; January 2007
- Journal of School Health; Nutrition and Academic Performance; J.U. Edwards, et al.; Feb 2011
- Obesity; Saliency Processing and Obesity; O.M. Hendrick, et al.; June 2011
Jan Sheehan is an award-winning medical and nutrition writer, having entered journalism in 1992. She is a former contributing editor for "Parents" magazine. She has also written nutrition articles for "Self," "Fitness," "Ladies' Home Journal," "Health" and other magazines. Sheehan has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Purdue University.