IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Are You What You Eat? Understanding the Links Between Diet, Behavior, and Achievement During Middle School

We’ve all heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” but what exactly does it mean for student learning and achievement in middle school? In 2018, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham received an IES Exploration grant to investigate the direction and nature of the relationships between middle school students’ diet, behavior, and academic achievement. These relationships have not been fully studied in the United States, nor have longitudinal designs been used (most existing studies are cross-sectional) making it hard to determine the precise nature of the links between what adolescents eat and potential implications for learning and achievement.  

Because children in the United States consume about half of their nutrients at school, the need to identify school nutrition policies and practices that benefit student behavior and achievement is great, especially given newly published findings that motivated this IES research and that have attracted lots of media interest in recent days (see this story from CNN and this press release). The Alabama researchers found that specific nutrients (high sodium, low potassium) predicted depression over a year later in a sample of 84 urban, primarily African American adolescents (mean age 13 years). In the IES study, these researchers are expanding their work with a larger and more diverse sample of 300 students. In the first year of this 4-year study, the researchers recruited about two thirds of their sample (186 students across 10 schools) who completed the first of three week-long assessments as 6th graders and who will complete assessments again in the 7th and 8th grades. During each week-long assessment period, each student reports on their own diet and academic functioning, and on their own and their peers’ emotions and behavior. They also complete objective tests of attention and memory. The researchers observe each child’s actual food and beverage consumption at school and behavior during one academic class period. They also collect school records of grades, test scores, attendance, discipline incidents, and information about each school’s nutrition policies and practices. Parents and teachers also report on student diet, behavior, and academic functioning.

This school year the researchers are recruiting the rest of their sample. If their findings suggest a role for school practices and dietary factors in student behavior and achievement, they can guide future efforts to develop school-based programs targeting students’ diet that could be easily implemented under typical school conditions.

Written by Emily Doolittle, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research