Research Review: Fast Food May Slow Learning

Most people recognize that the foods we eat have a major impact on our physical health.

What is not as well known is that what we eat has a lot to do with how we feel emotionally and how our brain functions. This is particularly true for children and adults with neurodevelopmental issues.

Our practice finds that many of the children and young adults we see benefit from nutrition supports to improve their symptoms. Now there is research suggesting that the type of food children eat has a significant impact on how well they learn.

We all know that fast food contributes to weight gain and poorer physical conditioning.  Yet our full calendars and fast-paced lifestyle tempt us to make these quick meals a regular part of our diet.  Families who have benefited from seeing nutritionists for family members with emotional or behavioral difficulties are motivated to reduce their consumption of fast food.  Two researchers recently provided additional incentive to limit fast food in our diet by reporting that the amount of fast food children eat may be linked to how well they do in school.

This study included about 11,740 students. They were tested in reading, math, and science in both fifth and eighth grades. Children who ate fast food four or more times a week had significantly lower gains in all three achievement areas compared to children who did not eat any fast food the week before the survey.  Even children who ate fast food just one to three times a week had lower academic growth in one subject, math.

These researchers clearly state that this study does not prove that fast food consumption caused the lower growth in learning.  Nonetheless, their study took into account a number of other factors that may have explained the decline, including how much the children exercised; how much television they watched; what other food they ate; their family’s socioeconomic status; and characteristics of their neighborhood and school.

Although this study cannot explain why fast food consumption is linked to lower rates of learning, other studies have shown that fast food lacks certain nutrients, especially iron, that help cognitive development.  Also, fast food meals are high in fat and sugar which are known to hinder memory and learning processes.

Does this mean that families should never indulge in a fast food meal?  Of course not.  It does mean, however, that the amount of fast food in a child’s diet will likely affect not only their physical, emotional and behavioral well-being, but also their overall learning and classroom experience.  This makes limiting fast food consumption an even more important consideration.

K. M. Purtell & E. T. Gershoff. (2014). Fast food consumption and academic growth in late childhood. Clinical Pediatrics. doi: 10.1177/0009922814561742

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