Does What You Eat Really Affect Your Grades?
LINCOLN, Ill. – As a college student, it’s often hard to get all of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that our bodies need to perform at their highest potential – in and out of the classroom. But this is one of the most important times to be working the most efficiently.
We have exams. We have jobs. We have group projects that, for some reason, only find time to meet at your only available nap time window. We aren’t getting enough sleep. We are up late studying. We eat microwave meals, chips, and fast food more often than we intake fruits and vegetables. We are supposed to be taking in, learning, and retaining the skills we will need to use the rest of our lives for our career (if things work out). Coffee and cigarettes are not going to get you there.
So is there really any truth to the myth that your poor diet is affecting your academic performance? Let’s find out. And just in time for finals week.
In 2003, researchers in Canada surveyed over 5,000 students, analyzing their diet quality and also giving them a literary assessment meant to test their academic performance. They found that “students with decreased overall diet quality were significantly more likely to perform poorly on the assessment.” (“Diet Quality and Academic Performance”)
Of course, diet is not the only outside factor that influences academic performance. This study also found that students from socioeconomically advantaged families, better schools, and/or wealthier neighborhoods performed better than students from disadvantaged families.
It turns out more variables affect academic performance. A study conducted in 2012 called “Health-Related Variables and Academic Performance Among First-Year College Students: Implications for Sleep and Other Behaviors” in the Journal of College Health tested more variables including exercise, eating and sleep habits, mood states, perceived stress, number of hours worked per week, gender and age. Of all these variables, sleep habits (particularly the time students woke up) accounted for the largest variance in grade point averages.
In short, yes, diet does somewhat affect academic performance. After all, food is the fuel you use to think, to learn, and to remember material throughout your day. If you are putting junk into your body, you can’t expect your brain to be working at its full potential.
Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery and physiological science at UCLA, says that “Diet, exercise, and sleep have the potential to alter out brain health and mental function. This raises the exciting possibility that changes in diet are a viable strategy for enhancing cognitive abilities, protecting the brain from damage, and counteracting the affects of aging.”
So basically, there are foods that are good for your brain. We all know that it’s good to have a healthy diet to ensure a healthy body, but what about a healthy mind?
We’ve all studied the food pyramid since third grade, and with the internet, college students have unlimited access to knowledge about nutrition (just be wary of those Instagram models that advertise skinny tea or the annoying Facebook ads that swear they have found the secret to rapid weight loss). But doctor Gómez-Pinilla says that there really are foods that support long-term mental health and academic performance.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential in brain health.
This is one fat that you never want to cut back on because of its many benefits including improvement in learning and memory and helping to fight against mental disorders such as depression and mood disorders, schizophrenia and dementia, said Gómez-Pinilla. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in foods such as salmon, eggs, walnuts and kiwi fruit.
According to Gómez-Pinilla, in an Australian study, 396 children between the ages of 6 and 12 were given a drink with omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients (iron, zinc, folic acid and vitamins A, B6, B12 and C). Those 396 students showed higher scores on tests measuring verbal intelligence and learning and memory after a year and a half than a control group of students who did not receive the nutritional drink.
Folic acid is another component of your diet that you won’t want to be lacking finals week. Folic acid is essential for brain function, and folate supplementation has been proven effective in preventing cognitive decline and even enhances the effects of antidepressants. Folic acid is high in foods like spinach, oranges, pasta, cereal and bread.
In contrast, a diet high in trans fats and saturated fats adversely affect cognition. Junk food and fast food negatively affect the brain. Brain synapses and several molecules related to learning and memory are adversely affected by unhealthy diets, studies indicate.
As you go about your chaotic week of finals studying and project doing, it is going to be tempting to eat junk or replace meals with coffee. But science says you should do otherwise. Eat a healthy meal high in omega-3 fatty acids and folic acid and get a good night’s sleep – you might just see a difference in your academic performance.