How Does Nutrition Affect Learning?

by Melissa Luznicky Garrett

If you've ever been stuck at work, stomach rumbling from hunger, you know how difficult it can be to concentrate on the task in front of you. You might feel tired, sluggish and even a little irritable. As a consequence, you're probably not able to perform to the best of your ability. Now imagine you're a child who had to go to school without breakfast because your parents didn't have enough money to feed you. Unfortunately, this is a reality for many school-aged children, and the effects of poor nutrition on learning are a widespread problem.

Brain Chemistry

In order to function properly, the brain needs a constant supply of healthy fats, proteins, carbohydrates, water, vitamins and minerals. The amino acids found in high-protein foods are responsible for the firing of the brain's chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Vitamins and minerals convert amino acids to neurotransmitters, while the sugars found in fruits and vegetables power the brain. When a child is deficient in any one of those food sources, he might seem confused, irritable, distracted or apathetic.

In the Womb

Good nutrition habits start long before your child even enters the world and can impact how he learns later in life. Unfortunately, not every mother-to-be is able to provide her baby with the best possible start. Whether she is a teenager who doesn't understand the importance of proper nutrition or a woman who must skimp on her food budget just to make ends meet, those pregnant women who do not consume an adequate intake of vitamins, minerals and nutrients are at a greater risk of giving birth to low-birthweight babies. According to a 1991 report by the Denver, Colorado, Education Commission of the States, nearly 5 percent of babies born weighing 5.5 pounds or less suffer greater instances of hearing and vision problems and require specialized education services at some point during their school years.

Early Childhood

According to a report by the American School Health Association, fourth-grade students with a poor protein intake scored lower on achievement tests than their peers with adequate nutrition. Similarly, those students who showed an iron deficiency exhibited symptoms similar to ADHD: short attention span and difficulty concentrating as well as fatigue and irritability. Schoolchildren who skip breakfast in the morning consistently underscore on problem-solving tests that measure for speed and accuracy. Likewise, children who routinely skip meals decrease their body's ability to fight infection and illness. As a consequence, those children are more likely to miss school and fall behind their peers.

Poor Nutrition

Unfortunately, poverty and poor nutrition habits go hand in hand. School districts that serve a higher number of impoverished children often see a decrease in standardized test scores. Many children go to school hungry, unable to concentrate in class, and they might even miss school altogether. In addition, children who come from families in which both parents work are more likely to eat convenience-type foods that are high in fat, calories and sugar, all of which can impair a child's ability to function at optimal level while in school.

Education and Services

In an attempt to combat the effects of poor nutrition on learning, more school districts are now offering improved financial services to impoverished children. Students who qualify can receive reduced or free lunches. Some schools even offer a breakfast program for those parents who must drop them off before classes begin. Additionally, schools are now beginning to see the merit of incorporating lessons on nutrition in their everyday curriculum. Likewise, some district-wide school nutrition programs facilitate classes that teach low-income parents the importance on proper food choices and meal preparation.

About the Author

Melissa Luznicky Garrett is a graduate of The Children’s Institute of Literature, as well as a published author of adult and young adult novels. With six years of experience as a professional writer and editor, her work has appeared in both online and local print publications.