How Nutrition Affects Academic Performance

By Stephanie Margolis, R.D.

Regardless of the situation or grade level, there are clear correlations between the way our kids eat and how well they are able to perform in school. Now, it can be a little tricky to define performance, but for our purposes here it means improving their focus and fueling their bodies in a way that supports physical and mental growth. This does not mean that feeding them enough salmon will make them a straight “A” student, but I doubt you thought that anyway. ????

What We Know

There is a lot of research around the way kids eat and how it impacts their school life. For example, one of the largest studies done on the United States is called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBSS). Side story: when I worked for a large hospital system, we worked with schools to implement nutrition and fitness programming and this was a key study we relied on. This takes a comprehensive look at a variety of factors that impact kids’ health allowing us to find areas of concern and create programming to fill the gaps. When it comes to food, the YRBSS found that higher MAP scores (standardized testing) were strongly linked to breakfast intake, more milk intake, less sweetened beverages, and more physical activity. Simply put, poor diet leads to poor academic performance.

Not surprising, I know, but why? When we look at kids who have diets that are high in dietary fat refined sugars and not enough fruits, veggies, and whole grains we start to see the why. Typically, kids who eat this way are undernourished, even when they are getting adequate calories. This is linked to:

  • Decreased attendance likely due to the lack of nutrients in the diet to ward off illness.
  • Decreased attention likely due to a lack of filling foods leaving them hungry during the day – we all know how hard it is to focus when our tummies are rumbling.
  • Decreased academic performance likely due to the wrong fuel for the brain which may leave them tired and “foggy” throughout the day.

Fueling the Growing Mind

In the section we will be talking details of what to feed your kids for academic performance BUT don’t get lost in the weeds here’s the take home:

Feed your kids breakfast. Throughout the day add variety, more produce, less sweets.

There are so many nutrients needed for the brain to function, some which are: Vitamins A, C, E, B, manganese, and magnesium. Nutrients sodium, potassium, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids are also vital to allowing our brains to transmit messages and promote the thinking process. Add a few servings of the following foods to make sure you’re getting all the brain boosting nutrients you need.

  • Sweet potato (Vitamin A, potassium)
  • Carrots (Vitamin A)
  • Salmon (B vitamins, omega-3s, magnesium)
  • Eggs (B vitamins)
  • 100% orange juice (Vitamin C, potassium)
  • Strawberries, kiwis, red peppers, broccoli (Vitamin C)
  • Oils & nuts (Vitamin E, omega-3s)
  • Milk (Vitamin B, calcium)
  • Green leafy veggies such as spinach and broccoli (Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, B vitamins, manganese, magnesium)
  • Whole grains such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal (manganese)
  • Avocado (omega-3, magnesium)

On the flip side we also know that diets high in trans and saturated fats negatively affect cognition. The way this happens is these nutrients getting into the synapses of the brain weakening their connection meaning messages aren’t sent as quickly.

Bottom Line

When our kids are fed a variety of colorful foods, we allow their bodies and brains to grow optimally. Use the list above to add to your shopping cart and remember 80/20. 80% of the time you’re doing your best and the other 20% they are eating handfuls of goldfish and ice cream for dinner. It’s all about realistic balance.



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