3 Ways Nutrition Influences Student Learning Potential and School Performance

Healthy Food Choices in Schools June 26, 2014 Print Friendly and PDF


Advocates of child health have experimented with students’ diets in the United States for more than twenty years.  Initial studies focused on benefits of improving the health of students are apparent.  Likewise, improved nutrition has the potential to positively influence students’ academic performance and behavior. 

Though researchers are still working to definitively prove the link, existing data suggests that with better nutrition students are better able to learn, students have fewer absences, and students’ behavior improves, causing fewer disruptions in the classroom.[1]

Improve Nutrition to Increase Brain Function

Several studies show that nutritional status can directly affect mental capacity among school-aged children. For example, iron deficiency, even in early stages, can decrease dopamine transmission, thus negatively impacting cognition.[2] Deficiencies in other vitamins and minerals, specifically thiamine, vitamin E, vitamin B, iodine, and zinc, are shown to inhibit cognitive abilities and mental concentration.[3]  Additionally, amino acid and carbohydrate supplementation can improve perception, intuition, and reasoning.[4] There are also a number of studies showing that improvements in nutrient intake can influence the cognitive ability and intelligence levels of school-aged children.[5]

Provide a Balanced Diet for Better Behaviors and Learning Environments

Good Nutrition helps students show up at school prepared to learn. Because improvements in nutrition make students healthier, students are likely to have fewer absences and attend class more frequently.  Studies show that malnutrition leads to behavior problems[6], and that sugar has a negative impact on child behavior.[7]  However, these effects can be counteracted when children consume a balanced diet that includes protein, fat, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. Thus students will have more time in class, and students will have fewer interruptions in learning over the course of the school year.  Additionally, students’ behavior may improve and cause fewer disruptions in the classroom, creating a better learning environment for each student in the class.

Promote Diet Quality for Positive School Outcomes

Sociologists and economists have looked more closely at the impact of a student’s diet and nutrition on academic and behavioral outcomes.  Researchers generally find that a higher quality diet is associated with better performance on exams,[8] and that programs focused on increasing students’ health also show modest improvements in students’ academic test scores.[9]  Other studies find that improving the quality of students’ diets leads to students being on task more often, increases math test scores, possibly increases reading test scores, and increases attendance.[10]  Additionally, eliminating the sale of soft drinks in vending machines in schools and replacing them with other drinks had a positive effect on behavioral outcomes such as tardiness and disciplinary referrals.[11]

Every student has the potential to do well in school. Failing to provide good nutrition puts them at risk for missing out on meeting that potential.  However, taking action today  to provide healthier choices in schools can help to set students up for a successful future full of possibilities.


David Just Phd- Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs


[1] Sorhaindo, A., & Feinstein, L. (2006). What is the relationship between child nutrition and school outcomes. Wider Benefits of Learning Research Report No.18. Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning

[2] Pollitt E. (1993). Iron deficiency and cognitive function. Annual Review of Nutrition, 13, 521–537.

[3] Chenoweth, W. (2007). Vitamin B complex deficiency and excess. In R. Kliegman, H. Jenson, R. Behrman, & B. Stanton (Eds.), Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th edition. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Greenbaum, L. (2007a). Vitamin E deficiency. In R. Kliegman, H. Jenson, R. Behrman, & B. Stanton (Eds.), Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th Edition. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Greenbaum, L. (2007b). Micronutrient mineral deficiencies. In R. Kliegman, H. Jenson, R. Behrman, & B. Stanton (Eds.), Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th Edition. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Bryan, J., Osendarp, S., Hughes, D., Calvaresi, E., Baghurst, K. & van Klinken, J. (2004). Nutrients for cognitive development in school-aged children. Nutrition Reviews, 62(8), 295–306.

Delange, F. (2000) The role of iodine in brain development. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 59, 75–79. Sandstead, H. (2000). Causes of iron and zinc deficiencies and their effects on brain. Journal of Nutrition, 130, 347–349.

[4] Lieberman, H. (2003). Nutrition, brain function, and cognitive performance. Appetite, 40, 245–254.

Frisvold, D. (2012). Nutrition and cognitive achievement: An evaluation of the school breakfast program. Working Paper, Emory University.

[5] Benton, D. & Roberts, G. (1988). Effect of vitamin and mineral supplementation on intelligence in a sample of schoolchildren. The Lancet, 1, 140–143.

Schoenthaler, S., Amos, S., Doraz, W., Kelly, M., & Wakefield, J. (1991). Controlled trial of vitamin – mineral supplementation on intelligence and brain function. Personality and Individual Differences, 12, 343–350.

Benton, D. & Buts, J. (1990). Vitamins/mineral supplementation and intelligence. The Lancet, 335, 1158–1160.

Nelson, M. (1992) Vitamin and mineral supplementation and academic performance in schoolchildren. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 51, 303–313.

Eysenck, H., & Schoenthaler, S. (1997). Raising IQ level by vitamin and mineral supplementation. In R. Sternberg and E. Grigorenko (Eds.), Intelligence, heredity and environment (pp. 363 – 392). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Kleinman, R., Murphy, J., Little, M., Pagano, M., Wehler, C., Regal, K., & Jellinek, M. (1998) Hunger in children in the United States: Potential behavioral and emotional correlates. Pediatrics, 101(1), e3.

[7] Jones, T., Borg, W., Boulware, S., McCarthy, G., Sherwin, R., Tamborlane, W. (1995). Enhanced adrenomedullary response and increased susceptibility to neuroglygopenia: Mechanisms underlying the adverse effect of sugar ingestion in children. Journal of Pediatrics, 126, 171–177.

[8] Florence, M., Asbridge, M., & Veugelers, P. (2008). Diet quality and academic performance. Journal of School Health, 78, 209–215.

[9] Meyers, A., Sampson, A., Wietzman, M., Rogers, B., & Kayne, H. (1989). School breakfast program and school performance. American Journal of Diseases of Children, 143, 1234–1239.

Kleinman, R., Murphy, J., Little, M., Pagano, M., Wehler, C., Regal, K., & Jellinek, M. (1998) Hunger in children in the United States: Potential behavioral and emotional correlates. Pediatrics, 101(1), e3.

[10] Powell, C., Walker, S., Chang, S., & Grantham-McGregor, S. (1998). Nutrition and education: A randomized trial of the effects of breakfast in rural primary school children. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 68, 873–879.

Cueto, S. (2001). Breakfast and dietary balance: The enKid study. Public Health Nutrition, 4, 1429–1431.

Storey, H., Pearce, J., Ashfield-Watt, P., Wood, L., Baines, E., & Nelson, M. (2011). A randomized controlled trial of the effect of school food and dining room modifications on classroom behaviour in secondary school children. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 65, 32–38.

Hollar, D., Messiah, S., Lopez-Mitnik, G., Hollar, T., Almon, M., & Agatston, A. (2010). Effect of a two-year obesity prevention intervention on percentile changes in body mass index and academic performance in low income elementary school children. American Journal of Public Health, 100(4), 646–653.

[11] Price, J. (2012). De-fizzing schools: The effect on student behavior of having vending machines in schools. Agricultural and Resource Economics Review, 41(1), 92–99.


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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.