The Fast Food Connection: Childhood Obesity and Academic Performance

Posted May 19, 2010 by

As Americans, we have become an “obesogenic” society.  We have seen the consequences of our environment and the media promoting increased food intake, non-healthful foods, and physical inactivity. We know that our kids suffer the associated physical, emotional, and social tolls associated with obesity. Sadly, our kids’ performance in school may be another casualty in the super-sized society we live in.
Many of us are aware of the alarming increase in obesity in our youth.  Results from the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicate that an estimated 17% of children and adolescents age 2 – 19 years are obese.  In addition, one year ago EP Editor Elisabeth Wilkins blogged about the fact that 1 out of every 5 four year-olds (that’s 20%!) in America is now obese. These are disturbing statistics for any parent!

There are several significant contributing factors that are commonly undervalued, however. The impact of fast foods in and around our childrens’ schools, and the confusing messages that the media presents to our children, cannot be underestimated.

According to a National Nutrition Association survey, more than one third of schools dish out restaurant-branded items for lunch. The study goes on to state that, among districts with over 25,000 students, 50 percent served brand-name fast food (Fast Food in Schools, and Some Other Cafeteria Numbers From 2008).  Why? Because it’s affordable and kids like it – two reasons that are difficult to dispute.

While it’s a step in the right direction, removing fast foods from within the schools doesn’t decrease the potential for obesity related to those products. A study released last year by University of California, Berkeley, said that California’s nearly three million 9th-graders are at least 5.2% more likely to be obese if there is a fast food restaurant with one-tenth of a mile of their school (Linking Fast Food Proximity to Obesity). That translates to 156,000 students – and those are only the 9th-graders!

Why all the concern about fast food? Three words: decreased scholastic performance. Researchers from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee tracked the eating habits of children aged 10 – 11, then compared it to performance in reading and math tests. After taking other factors into account, pupils who ate fast food between four and six times per week scored almost 7 points below average.

The media also gives our kids mixed messages about food. Think about all the media input your child may be exposed to: the TV, computer, billboards, video games, magazines, and books. In addition to promoting inactivity, the media bombards us with images of thin people (including models and kids) having fun while eating and drinking high-calorie foods and beverages. Children do not necessarily have the cognitive abilities to process this paradox.

The issue of obesity in kids is alarming enough to draw the attention of Michelle Obama. In February, she created a nationwide “Let’s Move” campaign to fight the problem. President Obama simultaneously signed a memorandum creating a first-ever federal task force on childhood obesity.

We are aware of the part fast food plays in creating “super-sized” kids. We know about the physical, emotional, and social consequences of an overweight child. Now we have another area of concern: academic performance.

My kids’ school does not serve fast food items in their cafeteria, but there are a number of fast food restaurants within a one tenth of a mile radius from their school. I know that I’ve become dulled as to the affects that media has on my kids’ food choices and succumb to indulging my sons more often than I should (the summer break presents a special challenge). After reading several of these studies, however, it’s time that I choose my children’s food sources more carefully, and teach my kids to become more media savvy. This is, of course, in addition to monitoring and limiting the amount of time they spend with their noses glued to their Nintendo DS games.


Susan Engel is a mother of two, writer and parent blogger for Empowering Parents.

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  1. Susan Engel Report

    Thanks for your comments, Michelle! Wow! I really like the “DJ Smart-T & the Whiz Kid Crew” DVD idea! I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s accrued some great reviews on, and, of course, from you! 😉 (I wish I’d known about it when my kids were a bit younger, but what a great tool to have in one’s parenting arsenal — it always helps to have those tools available when supporting a fellow parent.)

    And yes, the connection between food and scholastic achievement is probably one that is frequently overlooked and undervalued, unfortunately. I’m so glad that you shared your experience with making food changes in your son’s diet (in addition to the DVD) and the positive results that you have seen as a result.

    Let’s hear it for another vigilant and creative mom! *woo hoo!!* 🙂 Thank you, again, for taking the time to leave a comment, Michelle. All the best to you and your son! I’d love to hear how he progresses.

  2. michelle marie Report

    I completely agree with obesity problem in adolescents. I was recently very concerned with my son being behind in kindergarten and came upon this idea of the connection between food and academia. I looked into the food he was getting at day care and started sending healthy snacks and lunches for him instead. i was also given a great dvd by his teacher that helps with reading and recognizing letters and words, so with a healthier diet and the help of the sight words dvd , he is doing better. if anyone has a 5 year old having trouble recognizing letters this dvd is great. Its called DJ Smart-t & the Whiz Kid Crew. i’ve only seen it on

  3. Susan Engel Report

    Joanna, I couldn’t agree with you more! We absolutely must stick together on this issue and support one another in order to stave off the constant barrage from various media sources that would have our kids consuming an unhealthy diet at every turn.

    Sounds like you’re doing an awesome job at providing your family with healthy food/snack options. Keep up the great work, mom. You are an inspiration to us all (me included), Joanna! 😉

  4. Joanna Report

    I feel that we have to be pro-active in keeping our children healthy and fit. It won’t happen on it’s own, because by nature we tend to want the quick-fix if it’s there. I avoid buying processed and unhealthy food where possible and try to keep cakes and puddings for more special treats, handing out healthy options such as dried fruit and nuts etc. Cooking healthy meals is a priority in our daily living. It’s amazing how many in UK don’t know how to cook! Our children are under enormous pressure with all the adverts and peer pressure, that if we as families don’t support each other in this, who else will?

  5. Susan Engel Report

    Thank you for your comment, Vidal! It sounds like you are a very astute and concerned parent. I applaud your ability to recognize your son’s weight at an early age and instill new eating and exercise habits — both of which will carry though for years to come.

    It can certainly be a challenge to monitor what our kids eat. Letting them eat whatever they want is sometimes “easier” in the short run, but as the statistics show, it catches up with them in the long run.

    I would love to say that my kids’ diets are amazingly healthy, but alas — they aren’t. I try to be conscientious and offer them nutritional foods, but after battling TV ads and strategically-placed foods in the grocery store, my motto tends to settle into the “most things in moderation” category). 😉

    I think that if we’re cognizant, informed parents and model healthy food choices in our own lives, it will naturally affect our kids’ diets as well. Keep up the great work!! 🙂

  6. Vidal Aponte Report

    Obesity is a big problem in the world today. It’s hard as a parent, because sometimes we let our children eat whatever they want, because we don’t think it will do them any harm but in the long run it will. I am a proud parent of 2 beautiful children. My son is 13 and my daughter is 8. My daughter has always been skinny, but when my son was younger he was very chubby but I worked with him and tried to get him to eat much better. I also put him in little league baseball and if you see him now, he is very slim. Of course, it takes work but in the long run it is worth it to help them slim down. All the best to you and your children!



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