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HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

Food for thought

Can kids eat their way to better grades?

By Carol Lloyd

Pop quiz: If you take a classroom of hungry kids and mainline Ding Dongs into their veins, then give them a math test, what’s going to happen? How about first offering them a Skittles free-for-all? A Pop-Tarts pig-out? Or a french fry feeding frenzy?

Ask any parent to offer anecdotes about how food affects kids’ brains, and the floodgates open. To wit: At my daughter’s recent birthday party, the 6-year-old girls decorated masks with the focus of Renaissance masters until we served the chocolate cake. Within minutes the scene had regressed 1,700 odd years to a bacchanalia of half-naked, sugar-smeared revelers, intent on raising Hades from the underworld with their screams.

Parents in attendance marveled at the “classic sugar rush.”

But what was really happening in those little brains? And what does science tell us about food’s relationship to cognition?

A famine of facts

As a firm, some might say fanatical, believer in the power of food to influence kids’ thinking — and specifically their academic performance — I was eager to dive into the sea of literature on this topic.

Prepared for some serious Internet surfing, I soon found myself wading in a veritable puddle of research. Compared to thousands of other arenas on, say, television’s impact on the brain or the influence of classroom size on learning, less seems to be known about how food affects children’s mental functioning.

“I was surprised too,” says Kerri Tobin, a third-year graduate student in education at Vanderbilt University who is researching the potential link between fast food and academic performance. “There’ve been plenty of studies on the effects of malnutrition, mineral deficiencies, and the importance of breakfast but not that much on foods.”

Sugar, fat, and additives — oh my!

Some of the findings, she says, challenge conventional wisdom. For instance, researchers have found that sugars — be they natural or artificial — don’t cause hyperactivity. Another study found that children, like adults, performed better on mental cognition and memory tests when amped up on caffeine. “Though I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that we give caffeine to children,” Tobin hastens to add.

There have been fewer studies focusing on how certain foods affect cognition, though there is a growing body of research on how diets affect Alzheimer’s patients. Tobin cites one study in which rats fed a diet high in saturated fats had slower cognitive functioning than those on a normal diet. Another study, published in 2005 by the American Society for Nutrition, found that higher intakes of PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids found in fish and vegetable oils) may contribute to improved academic performance while increased ingestion of cholesterol was linked to poorer performance.

In the past 30 years, several studies have attempted to understand the effects of additives in our foods. According to one meta study published in 2004, many reports have documented that colorings, preservatives, and other additives carry adverse behavioral effects.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/28/2012:
"Try looking for a link between MSG (which is found in many fast foods - sometimes hidden as ingredient) There are studies that suggest that it can cause brain damage in young people - kind of like the way coke drug habit effects the brain. "
02/28/2012:
"Ammonia to clean hamburger meat? Is this for real? Had no idea. "
02/4/2010:
"Yes the devil is in the details. The latest study says eat or drink sugar to boost your abilities right before a test. I think more important is the assistance they get in becoming educated. Schools want all students to act like adults, think like adults and be a walking library of etiquette and law. That just isn't going to ever happen as they are children. You can go right back to breast milk versus formula. They claim that feeding formula reduces the childs mental abilities by 30%! So why don't we just make a law that all babies are fed by the natural way. Oh....that might be interfering you your rights. But who knows one day they might be able to legislate even that. I am becoming a very cynical person when it comes to schools. This is a business. We are emotionally invested because it is our children. We as parents are letting the educators walk all over us. They don't know any secrets that they could share with us. Their children make the same mistakes ours do. They f! ail to get 30% of the kids to graduation. Yet no one wants to take them on and require changes that might benefit the kids. The same old record is scratching in the groove. Educators rally around themselves, not our kids. How is more money going to create something new out of the old? It won't they will just get paid more for less."
02/3/2010:
"Great article. With kids in college and elementary school, I've always been pretty laid back in my parenting. Coffee doesn't bother them (and no they don't have to drink decaf) and sugar never made them hyper. Of course, it will take generations of research to banish these myths to old wives' tale status."
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