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It’s something we have speculated on for centuries — how food affects us. One can imagine medieval mothers plying their children with garlic to balance their humors: “Honey, you need more black bile but less phlegm!”
The bottom line: Healthy breakfasts count. Study after study has shown that some breakfast is better than none, and at least one study found that a healthy morning meal — with whole grains and protein — boosts academic performance.
Try to avoid processed foods as much as possible. Since we don’t know what’s in them, and at least some studies show that additives — the mainstay of processing that gives products a long shelf life — contribute to hyperactivity, the safest option is to give your child as many single-ingredient or homemade foods as possible: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, eggs, and meat. Or check out our picks for healthy cereals.
By Carol Lloyd
In 2004 a U.K. study found that additives may increase hyperactivity. After putting a group of 3-year-olds on an additive-free diet for a week, researchers gave some of the children an additive-laced drink and others an additive-free but otherwise identical beverage. Parents of the children drinking the additives reported an increase in disruptive behavior (they didn’t know which drink their children had been given). Another report published in 2007 in the British medical journal The Lancet found significant adverse behavioral responses in both 3-year-olds and 8- and 9-year-olds when they consumed drinks with a mixture of sodium benzoate and artificial coloring. Yet another study published in 2007 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a junk food diet at age 4 ½ was associated with a higher incidence of behavioral problems at age 7 — but the researchers noted that it was unclear whether this reflected a nutritional issue or a difference in parenting styles.
Tobin’s own research — unpublished but presented at the 2009 conference of the American Educational Research Association — looked at the food consumption surveys of 5,500 fifth-graders from a national longitudinal survey by the Department of Education. Tobin found that children who ate fast food three or more times per week performed lower on standardized tests in reading and math.
How much lower? “On a 1-to-100 scale, it would mean about 17 points,” says Tobin. In other words, the difference between a 90 and a 73.
Think such findings say more about kids’ socioeconomic background than the actual affects of fast food? Not necessarily. Tobin says she controlled for the following variables: the parents’ income, age, education, occupational status, and number of hours employed; whether or not they attend parent-teacher conferences; whether the family has food security issues; and how many hours the child spends in before- or aftercare. She also controlled for the children’s race, gender, and age; the number of books they own; their interest in the subject matter tested; other food behaviors; obesity; school attendance; and their geographical region and urbanicity.
According to Tobin, none of these factors changed the link between a fast-food diet and low academic performance.
So does this mean fast food makes you stupid?
Tobin is cautious about jumping to any conclusions: “Having controlled for so many things, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to imagine that there could potentially be a biological effect.” But, she adds, there could be other explanations. “Maybe kids who don’t perform well academically are the type of kids who like to pretend they get to go to fast-food restaurants all the time. Or maybe the kind of parent that goes to fast-food restaurants is the same kind of parent who doesn’t have time to help with homework.”
In any case, Tobin’s research underscores some of the difficulties in researching the relationship between food and academic performance. Self-reported food-consumption surveys (from both children and adults) are notoriously inaccurate. Moreover, most food isn’t a single ingredient you can test in isolation.
To make matters worse, testing the effects of certain ingredients requires that families adhere to special diets, which typically limits the duration of the tests and therefore their scope. Finally, because we don’t eat ingredients in isolation, understanding the complexity of how chemical compounds interact in our bodies is usually beyond the scope of nutritional research. As Tobin noted, if there is something about fast food that has a deleterious effect on kids’ thinking, it won’t be easy to isolate: “Is it saturated fat? Is it a certain preservative? Is it the ammonia they use to clean hamburger meat? We don’t know.”
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