Fast food research recently released in the journal Clinical Pediatrics gives fuel to parents’ decrees about healthy eating, in suggesting that fast food may sink their children’s grades. Scientists at Ohio State University (OSU) had fifth graders self report on how frequently they had a meal or a snack from a restaurant specializing in convenience food, using a survey and tested their academic performance in both fifth and eighth grade. The effect of junk food on childhood weight and its contribution to juvenile obesity has gotten more attention the last several years. However, after controlling for other factors that could affect school performance, researchers found an additional possible negative correlation between the frequency of fast food consumption and rate of learning.
Team leader Kelly Purtell, an assistant professor of human sciences at OSU notes that while the research on childhood food consumption has established the link to a growing epidemic of childhood obesity, the team was curious about other consequences of high fat and sugar diets. Therefore, they collected and analyzed data gleaned from 8,544 10-year olds in a nationally representative sample. The research team found that two-thirds of the children in the study habitually ate at least some fast food with 20 percent recording four or more such meals in the week before their participation in the survey. Scientists predicted sinking academic achievement and grade outcomes in eighth grade for those with higher rates of fast food consumption. Recognizing that other variables could confuse the results, they controlled for about two dozen possible skewing factors, including socioeconomic circumstances, television habits and physical activity.
The results, gathered three years after the initial survey, when the study participants were in eighth grade lined up with the research team’s expectations. Using direct assessments of academic achievement, the children who regularly ate fast food four or more times per week tested more poorly in reading, math and science than those who partook less frequently. Daily indulgence corresponded to sinking average science scores to 79 from 83 for the fast food abstinence group with similar results in reading and math. Even one to three visits to a convenience food restaurant per week appeared to be linked with lower scores in math.
Although researchers concede that their study is far from conclusive in proving that fast food is the deciding factor in sinking children’s grades over time, they do note consistent results after all the control factors were taken into consideration. They did not explore the whys of the slowed academic performance, however, they can point to other research studies that link iron deficiency, high fat and sugar diets, characteristics indicative of the typical fast food fare, to impaired learning, memory and cognitive development. More research is needed to strengthen the apparent correlations that this study suggests. Therefore, Purtell cautions that they are not sending out an alarm to curtail all fast food consumption by children or telling parents to cease and desist all visits to Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and the like, but even the hint of a possible interaction between fast food and academic performance makes an argument that limiting its consumption may be a wise move.
by Tamara Christine Van Hooser
Image Courtesy of EvelynGiggles – Flickr License