ERIC Identifier: ED369579
Publication Date: 1994-06-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early
Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Children's Nutrition and Learning. ERIC Digest.
Children of all socioeconomic levels are at-risk for poor nutrition. Some
children do not get enough to eat each day because their families lack money to
buy sufficient food. Other children consume enough food but have diets high in
fat, sugar, and sodium that put them at risk for obesity or heart disease and
other chronic illnesses. Furthermore, as the number of parents in the workforce
increases, more children are being left to fend for themselves for meals.
The premise that nutrition affects children's ability to learn is not new.
The link has been recognized for some time through anecdotal evidence and, more
recently, through controlled research studies. This digest reviews research on
the link between nutrition and learning from the prenatal through school years,
and considers the importance of nutrition education for children.
NUTRITION AND LEARNING: THE PRENATAL PERIOD
weight gain during pregnancy can increase the risk of having a low birthweight
(under 5.5 pounds) baby. Low birthweight infants are more likely than other
infants to have hearing, vision, or learning problems and to require special
education services. Recent evidence indicates that 15% of very low birthweight
(less than 3.5 pounds) children and nearly 5% of low birthweight children
require special education, compared to 4.3% of children born at normal
birthweight (Newman, 1991).
The Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
provides food and nutrition education to pregnant and lactating low-income
women. A 5-year national evaluation of this program found that young children
whose mothers had participated in WIC scored significantly higher on vocabulary
tests than children whose mothers did not receive WIC benefits (Rush, 1986).
NUTRITION AND LEARNING: PRESCHOOL AND SCHOOL YEARS
deficiency is one of the most prevalent nutritional problems of children in the
United States. Iron deficiency in infancy may cause a permanent loss of IQ later
in life. Iron deficiency and anemia lead to shortened attention span,
irritability, fatigue, and difficulty with concentration. Consequently, anemic
children tend to do poorly on vocabulary, reading, and other tests (Parker,
Several studies have found effects of hunger and poor nutrition on cognitive
ability. One such study found that among fourth grade students, those who had
the least protein intake in their diets had the lowest achievement scores
A laboratory study that involved healthy, well-nourished school-aged children
found a negative effect of morning fasting on cognitive performance. A test of
the speed and accuracy of response on problem-solving tasks given to children
who did or did not eat breakfast found that skipping breakfast had an adverse
influence on their performance on the tests (Pollitt et al., 1991).
Children who are hungry or undernourished also have more difficulty fighting
infection. Therefore, they are more likely to become sick, miss school, and fall
behind in class.
POOR EATING HABITS AND POVERTY
Poor nutrition among
children in America is on the rise. This rise is due, in part, to poor eating
habits, which include overeating and skipping meals. The U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services (DHHS) found that from 1984 to 1991 there was a 42%
increase in the number of children between 3 and 17 years of age who were
overweight (U.S. DHHS, 1992-93). The National Adolescent Student Health Survey
found that, among eighth- and tenth-graders surveyed, 40% reported eating
breakfast fewer than three times per week. The same study revealed unsafe
methods of weight control by adolescents. Among students who dieted for weight
control, about half said they hardly eat or fast, 16% reported using diet pills,
12% claimed they vomit after meals, and 8% reported using laxatives (ASHA et
The rise in poor nutrition among American children is also due to increased
poverty. A survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that requests for
emergency food assistance from families with children increased by 14% from 1991
to 1992 (Waxman, 1992). The Community Childhood Hunger Identification Project
(CCHIP) estimates that 12% of U.S. families with children under age 12
experience hunger, based on parents' responses to survey questions. This survey
found correlations between rates of poverty and rates of reported hunger. The
CCHIP survey also found that children in families who reported hunger were more
likely to suffer from infections, have trouble concentrating, and miss school
than nonhungry children (Wehler et al., 1991).
Strong evidence exists that nutrition-related disorders are greater among
low-income households than among the rest of the population. Growth retardation,
which may reflect dietary inadequacy, occurs in preschool children from
low-income families at up to three times the rate as in their nonpoor peers.
Iron deficiency anemia is twice as common in poor children between ages 1 and 2
than it is in the general population (Parker, 1989).
MESSAGES TO CHILDREN ABOUT NUTRITION
With the increase in
the number of working parents and the ubiquity of fast-food establishments,
children are eating more meals away from home than ever before. One study found
that children in urban areas obtain more than half their calories outside the
home (Citizen's ..., 1990). Fast foods, although convenient, tend to be high in
fat and increase children's risk of becoming obese and of developing various
chronic diseases in adulthood.
Children receive messages about food and nutrition from television and food
packaging. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit nutrition
advocacy organization, determined that nine of ten food commercials on Saturday
morning television advertised foods high in sugar, salt, or fat. Children also
learn about nutrition from what they observe around them at school and at home.
One study found that preschoolers were better able to describe the food their
parents ate than parents were able to describe what their preschoolers ate
One of the U.S. DHHS's health promotion
objectives is to increase the number of schools that provide nutrition education
from preschool through twelfth grade. Nutrition education in school is most
effective when delivered in the context of a comprehensive health education
program and when school meal programs serve as "laboratories" where students can
practice what they learn in class. The "offer versus serve" practice, adopted by
some high schools and elementary schools, permits students to select three of
five foods presented at lunch. Giving children such choices allows them to apply
their understanding of nutrition.
WHAT SCHOOLS, NUTRITIONISTS, AND PARENTS CAN DO
In order to
foster children's knowledge of nutrition, the National Health/Education
Consortium recommends that schools and school personnel:
offer nutrition education as part of a comprehensive health education program;
coordinate nutrition education in the classroom and meals served in the
provide materials for parents about nutrition and about talking to their
children about nutrition; and
offer only nutritious foods at school, and use the "offer versus serve"
To help schools' efforts, dietitians and nutritionists can speak to students
about good nutrition, stressing the impact of nutrition on physical and
cognitive development. They can also discuss with school administrators ways of
building nutrition education into school curricula. To reinforce the efforts of
schools and nutritionists, parents can:
set a good example by eating healthfully;
let their children help to prepare meals and experiment with different foods;
regularly expose their children to new foods; and
encourage school officials to implement new child nutrition programs, or improve
This digest was adapted from: Troccoli, Karen B. (1993). EAT TO LEARN, LEARN TO EAT: THE LINK BETWEEN NUTRITION AND LEARNING
INCHILDREN. Washington, DC: National Health/Education Consortium. ED 363 400.
American School Food Service Association (ASFSA).
(1989). Impact of Hunger and Malnutrition on Student Achievement. SCHOOL FOOD
SERVICE RESEARCH REVIEW 13(1, Spring): 17-21.
American School Health Association (ASHA), Association for the Advancement of
Health Education, and Society for Public Health Education, Inc. (1989). THE
NATIONAL ADOLESCENT STUDENT HEALTH SURVEY: A REPORT ON THE HEALTH OF AMERICA'S
YOUTH. Kent, OH: ASHA. ED 316 535.
Citizen's Commission on School Nutrition. (1990). WHITE PAPER ON SCHOOL-LUNCH
NUTRITION. Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest. ED 328
Hellmich, N. (1992). Eat Well and So Will Your Children. USA TODAY (Oct 20).
Newman, L. (1991). PREVENTING RISKS OF LEARNING IMPAIRMENT: A REPORT FOR THE
EDUCATION COMMISSION OF THE STATES. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the
Parker, L. (1989). THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN NUTRITION AND LEARNING: A SCHOOL EMPLOYEE'S GUIDE TO INFORMATION AND ACTION. Washington, DC: National Education Association. ED 309 207.
Pollitt, E., R. Leibel, and D. Greenfield. (1991). Brief Fasting, Stress, and
Cognition in Children. AMERICAN JOURNAL OF CLINICAL NUTRITION 34(Aug):
Rush, D. (1986). THE NATIONAL WIC EVALUATION: AN EVALUATION OF THE SPECIAL SUPPLEMENTAL FOOD PROGRAM FOR WOMEN, INFANTS AND CHILDREN. Volume 1: Summary. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1992-93). PREVENTION REPORT.
Washington, DC: Author.
Waxman, L.D. (1992). A STATUS REPORT ON HUNGER AND HOMELESSNESS IN AMERICA'S
CITIES. Washington, DC: U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Wehler, C.A., R.A. Scott, and J.J. Anderson. (1991). A SURVEY OF CHILDHOOD
HUNGER IN THE UNITED STATES. Washington, DC: Food Research and Action Center. ED