Poor nutrition and its effects on learning ability of children


Educators and health professionals have long believed that nutrition and physical activity affect the learning ability of children. It has been documented that children from low socio-economic background experience poor nutrition and lack of physical activities, putting them at risk for serious health problems (Sigrid, 2002).

The risk has become evident with the rise in childhood chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and hypercholesterolemia, all of which are potential consequences of poor nutrition and lack of physical activities (Quendler, 2002). There has been a lack of empirical evidence to support the notion held by most health and education professionals that poor nutrition and physical activity affect learning and achievement, as most of the existing studies are not generalized to the general population (Sigrid, 2002).

This article reviews the contemporary literature supporting the link between nutrition, physical activity and academic achievement. All cells need nutrient to grow and work. Lack of vitamins, minerals, protein, calories, fat and water can make your immune system weaker. Poor nutrition makes your immune system less able to find and destroy germs. This means people who are malnourished are more likely to develop poor academic performance (Rosen, 2010).

Nutrition are components of food that are needed by the body in adequate amount, in order to grow, reproduce and live a normal healthy life (Alexandra, 2002). Adequate, optimum and good nutrition are used to indicate that the supply of the essential nutrition’s is correct in amount and proportion. It also implies the utilization of these nutrients in the body such that the highest level of physical and mental health is maintained throughout the individual life span (Alexandra, 2002).

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, nutrition is the process of breaking down of food substance taken in by mouth to be used for energy in the body or it is a process of obtaining and consuming food. By practising a healthy diet, many of the known health issues can be avoided. Good nutrition involves balancing your diet to nourish the body. For children, nutrition also paves the way for essential neurological and physiological development. Proper nutrition enables the body and brain to grow. Apart from providing energy and fuel for your body, evidence has shown that certain foods contain specific nutrients essential for some bodily functions. Lack of those nutrients may hamper growth in cell tissues and in organs (Idowu, 2013).

A balanced diet is crucial for brain development especially the development of the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are associated with a set of cognitive abilities called executive functions; these functions include problem solving, planning, using strategies, evaluating and monitoring and staying on the task. These cognitive abilities have been shown to have a diverse links to nutrient availability. A child who eats a diet full of nutritious food is more likely to behave well and interact successfully with others. Those with poor nutrition are prone to disinterest and withdrawn behaviours. When a child’s sugar level drops, they can go from happy children to being a moody mess. This is because complex carbohydrates like sugar raise serotonin level in the brain. Serotonin is responsible for a positive mood (Idowu, 2013).

Influence of malnutrition on learning potential and wellbeing of children

According to Galal (2003), malnutrition means undesirable kind of nutrition leading to ill health. It results from a lack excess or imbalanced of nutrient in the diet. Malnutrition is holding back the education of millions of children throughout the world. Malnutrition in early childhood can affect school attitudes, school enrolment, concentration and attentiveness. Children with a history of severe malnutrition perform less well on Intelligent Quotient (IQ) and general knowledge tests than children in matched comparison groups.

Under-nourishment also impairs the ability to concentrate, learn and attend school regularly. Good nutrition will strengthen the learning potential of students, enable them to learn effectively and thus maximize investments in education.

Poor nutrition as a factor influencing academic performance

The news is full of stories and articles about the rising in poor academic performance among students who even have to buy essay papers from academic writers. However, many people do not realize that, poor nutrition and poor health also lead to learning problems (Galal, 2003). Historically, analyses aimed at improving accessibility and quality of schooling in countries struggling with educational issues have focused on school related factors, such as location, the availability of teaching materials, teacher quality and instructional management. Demographic and socio-economic characteristics of households are also frequently cited as important determinants of school participation and school achievement (Rutter, 2006).

However studies have shown that undernourished children have lower attendance, shorter attention span, lower performance scores, and more health related problems than their well nourished counterparts among Eight hundred million students from a substantial fraction of the world’s 2000 population, a number that is growing by about 10 million each year. The resulting pressure on schools implies the need for cost effective approaches that support both education and health; the key is the nutrition/learning nexus centre (Galal, 2003).

  1. Poor academic performance of students

Derville (2004), defined poor performance of a child as “one whose standard of work falls below that reached by majority of his or her age mates and educational group”. He described them as being stupid and lazy”. Ideally, this is not true of all children who perform poorly in their academic work, and the teachers who regard them this way are often too lazy to find out the reasons why such students perform poorly.

  1. Relationship between nutrition and academic performance at school

Parker (1996), opined that nutrition is related to academic performance; what could responsible for this? He asked staring the reasons that could the human brain needs a large number of nutrients including vitamins, minerals and amino acids to produce neurotransmitters and other important brain compounds.

Brain chemistry can change as a result of lack of a single nutrient giving rise not only to diminished mental acuity but also to mental/emotional disturbances and behavioural disorders such as hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, anxiety, depression, eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia), drug and alcohol addiction, autism and violence.

Consequently, could lack of nutrients result to mental/emotional disturbances? Or could plastic brain repair itself as a result of improved nutrition? The answer appears to be a resounding “yes” as a result of changes in school diet. A study by Brown (1996) showed that English students with attention deficit disorder demonstrated the salutary effects of imposing a regular nutritious diet. For a period of three to four weeks, the students were on a very restricted diet, generally consisted of turkey, lamb rice, potato, banana, pear, various vegetables, bottled water, such flower oil and milk-free margarines. The results were fairly astonishing. 76% of parents reported a worthwhile improvement in behaviour of their children/students as well as in their academic performances. The rest reported no change. Equally interesting, for the students who improved the subsequent introduction of food additive into the diet resulted in a deterioration in behaviour for 70% of the participants.

Parents who are looking for professional assistance should consider a residential programme where students are trained and taught new habits about food and nutrition (Brown, 1996). Many studies show a direct link between nutrition and academic performance For example increased participation in breakfast programs is associated with increased in academic test scores, daily attendance and class participation, stories also show a direct link between physical activities and academic performance and between academic achievement and fitness (Salazor, 1997).

Causes of poor nutrition

The causes of poor nutrition according to Action Renter (1995) include the following;

  1. Poverty: When parents are poor due to low economic status, low income, job loss, unemployment, the student suffer poor nutrition or hunger. According to Community Childhood Hunger Identification Project (CCHIP) conducted by the Food Research and Action Center (1995) at any given time, 8% of American children under the age of 12 are at risk of hunger for a total of 13.6 million children experiencing food insecurity in America. This is supported by more recent data from the USDA (United States Development Agency) which comes to very similar conclusion; in 1998, nearly 20% of US children experienced hunger or food insecurity.
  2. Depression: This is a medical condition in which a person feels very sad anxious and often has physical symptoms such as being unable to sleep, eat, think (cognitive), etc. Poor nutrition can also be caused by depression as a result of the person or a student will not feed well (Ritche, 2001).
  3. Awareness/ignorance of education: There is a regular saying which states that ignorance is a disease. Ukpore (2005) opined that the study of food nutrition exposes a person to the right sources of food to the social culture, economic and psychological implications of food and food habits. This therefore means that education is important.

According to Ritche (2001), nutrition education is aimed at making people aware of the problem of hunger, malnutrition and the consequences of starvation. Students who lack the knowledge and the importance of good food or good nutrition are prone to have problems.Beliefs and knowledge influence students’ diet. Students who believe in the benefits of healthy eating are likely to have a healing diet (FAO, 1998).

  1. Infectious diseases: The connection between food and sickness is well established. Food borne and infectious diseases can result in malnutrition. Poor nutrition leaves children and adult more susceptible to contracting life-threatening diseases such as diarrhoea and respiratory infections.
  2. Under-nutrition: (Not getting enough to eat on a regular basis) and being poor can delay brain development and ability to learn. The longer the child does not get enough to eat, the greater the chance of learning delay.

Effects of poor nutrition on learning ability

Tara Consultancy Services (TCS) India- a member of the partnership of Child Development, Oxford University evaluated Gujaarat’s Improved Mid-day Meal Programme (MDMP) (1993 – 1996).  The implementer was the commisionerate of MDMP, government of Gujaarat and the program involved nearly 3 million school children. The nutritional health problems of the deprived school children included hunger, unsafe water, intestinal worms, urinary tract infections and malaria. The older boys and girls which are from 11 to 15 years were under nourished than younger children impediment to cognition and physical work capacity, night blindness and impaired vision, absenteeism are due to illness, tiredness and irritability. The improved MDMP consisted of deworming and vitamin; A dosing twice a school year, etc. other causes of poor nutrition are; lack of adequate food, poor food distribution programme and overpopulation.

  1. Poor nutrition hampers academic achievement

Study demonstrated by Nutrition and Academic for kids in a New York study, many students experienced malnutrition that was too slight for clinical signs yet still affected their intelligence and academic performance. This impairment can be corrected through improved nutrition. Among fourth grade students, those having lowest amount of protein in their diet had the lowest achievement scores. Iron deficiency anaemia leads to shortened attention span, irritability, fatigue and difficulty with concentration.

Consequently, anaemic children tend to do poorly on vocabulary, reading and other tests. Children who suffer from poor nutrition during the brain’s most formative years score much lower on tests of vocabulary, reading comprehension, arithmetic and general knowledge (Action for Health Kids, 2004)

  1. Students’ inability to learn due to poor nutrition

According to Medford (1995), the relationship between nutrition and the ability to learn is clearly established. Malnutrition can restrict brain development resulting in impaired learning and cognitive functioning. Recent research provides compelling evidence that under nutrition even in its milder forms can have detrimental effects on the cognitive development of school children. Mild to moderate poor nutrition can result in nutrition deficiencies the most common of which is anaemia. Anaemia can affect lethargy, lack of concentration and depending on the severity impair cognitive development, anaemic also lead to increased susceptibility to infectious disease.

Major consequences malnutrition

Malnutrition causes death and impairs the growth and development of millions of children. Poor nutrition disrupts growth and weakens the mental development of children producing less healthy and less productive adults. For example protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) affects about 200 million children worldwide. This has recently risen in African and South-East Asia. Iron deficiency affects approximately 200 million people in the developed countries. Vitamin A deficiency puts 250 million children worldwide at risk of blindness while Iodine deficiency is estimated to affect over 800 million people worldwide. Over 40 million people are affected by some degree of Iodine deficiency related brain damage. Iodine deficiency cause mental retardation, delayed motor development, stunted growth, speech and hearing defects (Galal, 2003).

Even moderate under nutrition can have lasting effects and compromised cognitive development and school performance. All these effects of poor nutrition comprise of students attendance and affects academic performance at school. Other effects of poor nutrition are death, heart disease, cancer, stroke, liver disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, abnormal rarefaction of bone state, arteriosclerosis (abnormal narrowing and hardening of fatty vessels), obesity and so on. As observed by EPP rights (1964), poor nutrition is to be associated with high death rate and low experiences of life. High morality in infancy and early childhood disease and among women during the child bearing period increase susceptibility to many diseases such as tuberculosis and impaired walking capacities.

Who is responsible for poor nutrition?

Adequate nutrition is necessary if children are to become fit and productive adults, able to fulfil their responsibility in school. According to Richard (2001), it is widely recognized that a child’s academic achievement is the product not only of the quality of school the child attends but also of the education and educational preparation the child has received outside the school in the family, community and from peers. A predisposition to learn can be enhanced by environmental conditions, whether a child is well nourished, as appropriate health care and has other physical necessities for learning e.g. stable housing that provides a place to study.

There are so many people who are responsible for the problems/causes of poor nutrition. The individuals, parents, schools and the government are involved (Richard, 2001);

a. The Individual

Students lack the knowledge of nutrition and so they eat what they like and what their parents can afford. These and their lifestyle predispose them to poor nutrition as increasing knowledge is not enough. Students need to know how to select more healthy food and how to prepare them especially those in the hostel (Fleck, 2009).


There is also need to direct parents as to the type of help they could give/offer to their children. Some parents (especially mothers) do not care whether their children eat or not while some do not bother about what their children eat. The parents also lack the knowledge of nutrition and offer anything to their children to eat. The emphasis is that “provided the stomach is filled”. This leads to their being responsible in the problem of students poor feeding or nutrition (Umukoro, 1997).


In educational research and policies, most educators, researchers and policy makers assumed that schools are the primary determinants of students’ achievement and that the influence of families, communities, peers and brother social forces are only modifiers (Richard, 2001).

The school is where many things are supposed to be learnt; nutrition education has been showed to have a significant effect in fostering healthy eating habits. Schools contribute to increasing nutrition problems by not defining a comprehensive health education curriculum for the teaching of the bases and by not monitoring what is sold to the students as food during break in school.


According to Tanner (2012), malnutrition is a major contributory factor to poor academic performance of school children in the developing world as a result of poverty or poor dietary decision made by their parents due to inadequate nutritional knowledge. In addressing the reason for this, he stated that local, state and federal/national leaders (government) have not paid adequate recognition to the importance of good nutrition; there is lack of adequate food and poor distribution programme. Government political instability has also contributed to the problem as policies geared at addressing this problem over the years in various countries are usually abandoned as soon as there is a change in regime.


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Action for Health Kids (2004); Nutrition Can Greatly Impact Your Child’s Learning Ability. New York; AHK Inc.

Action Renter (1995); The Link between Nutrition and Cognitive Development in Children, The Tufts University School of Nutritional Science and Policy: Centre on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy.

Arthur, G. & Anne, C. G. (2000); A New Science for Africa. London: Longman

Brown, M. (1996); How Does Nutrition Affect Development and Learning in School-Aged Kids. Demand Media. 23(5): 56-8.

Chaney, M. S. (2003);  Nutrition. Washington: Houghton Company.

Derville, C. I. (2004);  The Use of Psychology in Teaching. London: Longman

FAO (1998); Global Monitoring Report 1998: Food Prices, Nutrition and the Way Forward. FAO. Washington D.C.

Fleck, H. (2009); Introduction to Nutrition. New York: Macmillan.

Galal, O. (2003);  Nutrition Bulletin. Vol. 28, No. 1. California: Blackwell Publishers

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Jean, L. B. (2007);  Nutrition and Physical Fitness. Washington: Saunders Publishers

Medford, M. A. (1995);  Tufts University School of Nutrition. Retrieved on 24th June, 2014 from www. outfi.iture.org/ project

Mottran, R. F. (2006);  Human Nutrition. London: Bedford.

Parker, Y. (1996). Effects of Nutrition on Learning. ScienceDaily 25 (5): 45-9.

Quendler, M. (2002);  Nutrition and Physical Activities Study of Infants and Adolescents. Scientific American 32 (8): 3-5.

Richard, R. (2001); Improve Students Learning. Retrieved on February, 2006 from www. outfture.org/project

Ritche, J. A. S. (2001); Learning Better Nutrition Food and Agricultural Organization. Rome: United Nations

Rutter, K. (2006); Effect of Food Snacks on Cognitive Performance in Male College Student. Appetite 13(4): 30-7.

Rosen, C. (2010); The Natural Guide to Good Health, Lafayette, Louisiana: Supreme Publishing.

Salazor, D. (1997); Nutrition and the Social, Emotional and Cognitive Development of Infant and Young Children. Neetu, Zero to Three.

Schoenthalar, S. (1999); Controlled Trial of Vitamin Mineral Supplementation: Effects on Intelligence and Performance.

Sigrid, Q. (2002); Link between Nutrition, Physical Activity and Academic Achievement.

Sumati, R. M. (2004); Fundamentals of Food and Nutrition. India: Mohinder Publishers.

Tanner, B. K. (2012); What Role Should Government Play in Malnutrition? Expert Journal Report at Journal of Paediatric Medicine 2012; 312(5): 321-24.

Ukpore, B. A. (2005); A Comprehensive Analysis of Questions in Home Economics. Food and Nutrition.

Umukoro, J. O. (1997); Parents Supreme Duty and the Society. Lagos: Jaja Press Limited.

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Terry Thomson
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