Healthy Eating Plays a Role in Academic Success

A mountain of research suggests that healthy nutrition radically improves children’s cognitive function and measurable academic achievement.

We know that:

  • Specific vitamins and minerals that our body obtains from nutrient-rich foods play a critical role in brain growth, development and learning.
  • Staying hydrated is important—a drop of just 1-2% in body fluid can cause difficulty with math problems, slower processing, impaired short-term memory, and trouble focusing on a page of text or computer screen.
  • Obese children show less brain activity, especially in the frontal cortex which is associated with attention, short-term memory tasks, planning and motivation.
Kids eating GrabNGo

Perhaps the most powerful research findings stem from the Carolina Abecedarian Project, a study of more than 100 low income children that began in 1971 and followed participants through age 40. Children in the study who attended a daycare from birth to age 5 that served two healthy meals and a snack daily and provided medical care on-site had drastically higher achievements—sustained over time—than their counterparts in other settings. The children who received wellness care and healthy meals were:

  • Less likely to fail or repeat a grade in school,
  • 4x more likely to graduate from college, and
  • More than 4x more likely to hold a skilled job.
elementary salad bar

A new analysis in 2014 revealed that at age 40, the children who received wellness care and meals in child care had significantly lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol, diabetes risks, heart disease risks and obesity rates. 

This unanticipated result reveals a powerful connection between health and education, suggesting that a learning environment that provides a combination of pediatric healthcare, healthy nutrition and a stable curriculum is literally life-changing. Even without pinpointing a single mechanism responsible for the adult outcomes, researchers agree that the implications for health policy are both encouraging and profound.

“This study breaks new ground in demonstrating the emergence of the relationship between education and health.”

– Craig Ramey
former Principal Investigator, Carolina Abecedarian Project

The data underscores what we already know from behavioral health experts: changing the environment is the best way to change behavior. Research shows that if healthy nutrition and physical activity policies can be implemented in those places where children and families spend most of their time, their health will likely improve.

Can schools in central Indiana make simple changes that might improve students’ eating habits both inside and outside of school and improve academic performance? Yes. And many schools are already taking the steps. Want to join them? Here’s a great resource with three ways to “feed” your students’ learning potential:

Healthy Students Achieve More