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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