Eating Fast Food Hurts Children’s Ability To Learn

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Daily consumption of fast food not only causes obesity but hurts children’s academic performance, a new study suggests. The study, featured in SAGE Journal, found that students who ate fast food at least once a day had slower growth in math, reading, and science skills than their counterparts who didn’t eat fast food.

Researchers at Ohio State University used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort, a national survey of nearly 12,000 students, and asked students between fifth and eighth grade about their eating habits as part of an effort to compare the frequency of fast food eaten and academic gains made, if any, within a three-year span.

Among respondents, less than 30 percent had no fast food in the week before being asked about their eating habits. Nearly half of those who participated ate fast food between one and three times that week. Ten percent consumed it between four and six times. The remaining 10 percent ate fast food every day.

“High levels of fast food consumption were predictive of lower growth in all three academic subjects,” Kelly M. Purtell, the lead researcher, told The Huffington Post. “Fast food is really pervasive right now, and there are a lot of reasons why kids eat it and why families use it. Because of this, we have to think broadly about lots of different ways to make families not be reliant on fast food.”

The Ohio State University study comes on the heels of previous research that confirms the health benefits of consuming healthy food, especially for children living in low-income neighborhoods. A 2013 report by Action for Healthy Kids, a public-private partnership of more than 50 organizations committed to promoting children’s health, showed that children who started their day with a nutritious breakfast and later engaged in an hour of physical activity increased their cognitive ability and improved their disposition toward school.

While sporadic eating of fast food doesn’t result in nutrient deficiency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that regularly consuming the high-salt, high-sugar meals often found in popular fast food franchises and corner stores causes memory loss and slow brain development in children. Those foods lack the nutrients essential for cognitive development – including calcium, iron, Vitamin C, and zinc – at a time when children and adolescents are developing the fastest.

That’s why Democratic lawmakers, health officials, and educators have supported the nutrition guidelines for the National School Lunch Program, touting it has a step in the right direction in providing children with the nutrients they need to excel academically. The issue has become especially important in light of data that 90 percent of lunches packaged at home often contain deserts, chips, and sweetened nondairy products, none of which could be served in schools under the new nutrition guidelines.

“School meal programs should also serve as a learning tool to educate children what a healthy meal looks like. We operate in the education arena, so school meals must be part of that education process,” Dr. Kathryn Wilson, the National Food Service Management Institute’s executive director, said during a Senate committee hearing in July.

Though the study’s authors stressed the need for parents to cut back on fast food for their children, they acknowledged the financial and time constraints that may complicate efforts to prepare healthy meals. Researchers also noted that schools have a worthy adversary in the fast food industry, which has launched a $700 million per year marketing campaign geared toward low-income people. Through colorful advertising, it lures overwhelmed parents and their children.

The industry’s efforts haven’t gone in vain: Nearly one out of three American children between the ages of two and 14 and half of adolescents eat or drink something from a fast food restaurant daily.