Is Diet Quality Associated With a Child’s Ability to Learn?

  • Article
  • 2 min read February 2, 2016

Scientists are beginning to understand the relationship between what children eat and how well they do in school. Research has shown that children living in poverty have lower scores on academic standardized tests, poorer grades in school and complete fewer years of school. While some factors associated with poverty, such as higher levels of life stress, limited environmental stimulation and less parental nurturance may also affect learning, adequate nutrition is one important component for normal physical and cognitive development in children. We know that this is an issue that matters on so many fronts -- from health and wellness providers and school stakeholders to parents and child development experts — not to mention all of us, since  today’s children are our future. Read on to find out more, including ways schools can help.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than half of students in U.S. public schools are from low-income families. In addition, an estimated 15 million children live in food insecure households, and 12 million children and their families are currently served by the Feeding America network of foodbanks across the country.

We are beginning to understand how a child’s environment (i.e., poverty) affects the physiology of the brain. A recent study found a link with children from low-income house-holds and abnormal development in several critical areas of the brain associated with school readiness skills. Specific brain structures critical for learning, the authors say, are vulnerable to the environmental circumstances of poverty, including nutrition (or lack thereof).

For children living in developed countries, unhealthy food choices may be an important determinant of decreased cognition, regardless of socioeconomic status. Few studies to date have investigated the associations between dietary patterns or diet quality and cognitive development in children (Northstone, 2012; Smithers, 2012). Recently, researchers in Finland studying more than 400 children (girls and boys aged 6-8 years), found that poor diet quality was associated with poorer cognition only in boys.

These observations suggest that improving children’s access to nutritious foods may help them learn. Participation in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, for example, affords millions of low-income children the opportunity to enjoy a nutritious meal that includes nutrient-rich milk.

To help highlight the importance of alternative school breakfast programs in helping kids from lower income families start the school day with a nutritious meal so they can be ready to learn, Action for Healthy Kids (AFHK) announced the Lights, Camera, Breakfast Contest, which gives schools a chance to win $5,000 to put toward their school breakfast and wellness programs. Winners will be announced in March 2016. 

For more information on this topic, please read The Wellness Impact Report.

Follow me here and @DrDairy50 for more insights on the role of milk, yogurt, and cheese in health and wellness.