Nutrition and Academic Performance

Nutrition and Academic Performance

It’s been 12 years since Congress passed an act that required all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (or other federal Child Nutrition Program) to create wellness policies at the local level. With the addition of the Hunger Free Kids Act in 2010, schools now have more guidance and support to reinforce the wellness policies put in motion six years prior (US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nurition Service, 2016). While there’s certainly more work to be done, schools have made a great deal of progress in the last decade. Good news is there is more data than ever to support the positive associations between nutrition and academic performance.

Simply put, learning and health are mutual.

Research shows that when children get adequate nutrition and regular physical activity, academic achievement improves. Conversely, people with higher levels of education are more likely to engage in health and nutrition promoting behaviors (like exercising regularly, getting routine physicals, and refraining from smoking) and are likely to live longer (ASCD, n.d.). In these instances, academic achievement is defined by more than just class grades or standardized test scores, but also includes characteristics like graduation rates, dropout rates, attendance, behavioral problems at school, concentration, memory and mood (Centers for Disease Control, 2014).

“It takes a village to raise a child” – African Proverb

Creating healthy environments for students today will take a collaborative effort. While schools across the country have made great strides, there is more work to be done. If you’re an advocate for improving nutrition and physical activity in schools, here are some key points to help you make the case with state and school officials.

Healthy Eating

  • Skipping breakfast makes it hard for students to stay alert and focused, remember crucial information, and solve problems.
  • Failure to eat the recommended amounts of healthy foods (like fruits, veggies, and dairy products) that contain essential nutrients (like vitamin A, B6, B12, C, folate, iron, zinc, and calcium) is linked to lower grades and attendance rates.
  • Hunger (as a result of not eating enough) is linked to repeating a grade, lower class grades and attendance rates, and an inability to focus.

Physical Activity

  • Students who are physically active tend to have better grades, school attendance, memory, and on-task behavior.
  • Increased participation in Physical Education (PE) is linked to better grades, standardized test scores, and classroom behavior. In addition, spending more time in PE does not diminish academic achievement overall.
  • Short physical activity breaks, lasting about 5-10 minutes in length, have been shown to improve memory, concentration, and classroom behavior.
  • Students who participate in activities outside of school, like sports teams for example, tend to have a higher grade point average, lower dropout rates, and fewer disciplinary problems in school.

Adapted from CDC’s Health and Academic Achievement Overview (Centers for Disease Control, 2014)

Related Course: Health in the School Environment

Health in the School Environment explores childhood obesity and the overall health status of children from early childhood through higher education. The course will discuss educational programs to nutrition and health policies that are targeted to improve the overall health and well being of students. Students learn through real-world projects that include writing a paper on how a school menu’s nutrition could be improved, creating a plan for a nutrition education program, and creating an infographic with key facts on an age group’s nutrient and psychological needs.


ASCD. (n.d.). Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child: ASCD. Retrieved September 29, 2016, from ASCD:

Centers for Disease Control. (2014, May). Health and Academic Achievement.CDC. Retrieved from CDC:

US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nurition Service. (2016, September 23). Team Nurition: USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Retrieved from USDA Food and Nutrition Service:

About Amy Trietiak
Amy Trietiak is an Instructor with the Department of Health Studies. She has more than 15 years of health promotion experience and currently co-owns a yoga studio in Falls Church, Virginia. Outside of teaching in higher education, Amy’s professional work has spanned the areas of fitness program management, corporate wellness, and course development. She has worked for the University of Virginia, Louisiana State University, American University, and SHAPE America (a non-profit institute that supports the work of Health and Physical Educators nationwide). Amy completed her Bachelor’s degree in Exercise and Sport Science at East Carolina University and her Master’s in Health and Physical Education at the University of Virginia. She is a Certified Exercise Physiologist with the American College of Sports Medicine and has instructed group fitness classes since 1995.

To learn more about American University’s online Master of Science in Nutrition Education request more information or call us toll free at 855-725-7614.