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Tests: scores affected by intake of junk food

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Fast-food diet can result in slow-brain children

News | Published in TES Newspaper on 22 May, 2009 | By: Adi Bloom

US study finds direct link between consumption of junk food and academic performance

Eating too much fast food can affect pupils’ intelligence, seriously undermining their academic ability, according to new research.

Kerri Tobin, of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, studied the impact of a fast-food diet on the schoolwork of more than 5,500 10 and 11-year-olds. She found that those who ate higher-than-average amounts of junk food scored significantly lower than their classmates in a range of academic tests.

These findings applied even when pupils’ backgrounds and poverty levels were taken into account.

Previous studies have shown that hunger affects pupils’ achievement. As a result, schools on both sides of the Atlantic often run breakfast clubs for pupils. Such schemes have a positive effect on short-term memory and learning skills as well as on attendance.

Until now, however, no research has shown a conclusive connection between high-fat and sugary foods and low academic results.

Inspired by Jamie Oliver’s campaign to expunge the Turkey Twizzler from school lunch menus, most British schools have removed unhealthy snacks from vending machines, tuck shops and dining halls.

But Dr Tobin decided to test whether eating habits out of school also had a significant impact on pupils’ achievement. She therefore asked 5,500 primary pupils to record how many times a week they ate at fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s or Wendy’s.

A total of 54 per cent had eaten fast food between one and three times during the previous week; 10 per cent had snacked on it between four and six times; and 2 per cent - or more than 110 pupils - said they ate four or more times daily.

Dr Tobin found no correlation between pupils’ fast food consumption and their weight, or between their parents’ income and the amount of fast food they ate.

But there was a direct correlation between how much junk food they ate and their scores in a series of literacy and numeracy tests.

Once other factors were taken into account, pupils who ate fast food between four and six times in a week scored 6.96 points below average in reading. Those who ate it daily dropped 16.07 points below average. And pupils who indulged three times a day dropped 19.34 points for reading.

A similar trend was noted in maths. Those eating fast food between four and six times a week scored 6.55 points below average. Daily junk-food led to a 14.82-point drop, and a three-a-day habit resulted in an 18.48-point drop.

Overall, higher-than-average consumption of fast food resulted in lower- than-average test scores: 12.79 points less for reading and 12.35 points for numeracy.

Dr Tobin suggests a number of explanations. “It is possible that the types of food served at fast-food restaurants cause cognitive difficulties that result in lower test scores,” she said. “Alternatively, it is possible that the propensity to eat fast food is correlated with unobserved characteristics, like parental involvement in homework, which would also affect test scores.”

It is also feasible that pupils eat fast food as a means of coping with low test scores, reversing the cause-and-effect pattern.

But, she insists: “Continued investment in school nutrition plans, and curricula designed to make pupils and parents aware of the academic consequences of their food choices, would be one positive step that schools could take.”

But a spokeswoman for McDonald’s insists that Dr Tobin’s findings do not justify depriving pupils of fast food entirely. “The majority of our customers visit us two to three times a month,” she said. “Given this, and the choice and variety on our menu, there is no question that McDonald’s food can fit into a balanced diet.”

kerri.j.tobin@vanderbilt.edu

Jamie wages US war

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is to take his war against Turkey Twizzlers across the Atlantic.

In a new programme, to be shown on the ABC network next year, the 33-year- old will attempt to improve the eating habits of US pupils.

Combining the formula used for his 2005 Channel 4 series Jamie’s School Dinners with last year’s Ministry of Food, the celebrity chef will encourage communities to make healthy, nutritious meals.

“This is, without question, the most important and challenging thing I’ll ever do in my life,” he said.



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1 average rating

Comment (46)

  • This story is false. The "journalist" hasn't even bothered to contact Kerry Tobin to check the facts.

    See http://himmelgartencafe.blogspot.com/2009/05/fast-food-makes-kids-stupid-anatomy-of.html for full details.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    10:18
    25 May, 2009

    edent

  • This is the sloppiest journalism I have seen in the TES for quite a while.

    Kerry Tobin is not a doctor.

    She does not have a doctorate.

    She has not published this research.

    It is not peer-reviewed.

    She did not collect data on over 5000 children.

    The information in the article was taken from a discussion paper that clearly said on it that it should not be quoted without the author's permission.

    The TES should retract this story and apologise for its shoddy standards.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    10:23
    25 May, 2009

    Adam Creen

  • Yep. I checked this story too and it is bogus journalism. The Times has just slipped down another notch.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    12:31
    25 May, 2009

    teacher68

  • Junkfood Science is somewhat less forgiving of Tobin's work http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2009/05/junkfood-lowers-childrens-iq-and-other.html

    Certainly Bloom has done herself no credit with this article.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    5:48
    26 May, 2009

    maniraptor

  • Thanks very much for all your comments. You're absolutely right that I mistakenly awarded Kerri Tobin a doctorate that she hasn't yet completed, and for that I apologise.

    The other accusations are, however, unjustified. Nowhere did I state that the research was either published or peer-reviewed.

    The paper that Ms Tobin presented at the AERA conference does in fact refer to data from 5,500 pupils. Nowhere do I say that Ms Tobin collated this data herself. I say she "studied the impact of a fast-food diet on the schoolwork of more than 5,500 10 and 11-year-olds", which is correct.

    I also make it clear that there is merely a correlation between eating fast food and performing badly at school: "Eating too much fast food can affect pupils’ intelligence." "Can" is not the same as "does". And I cite some of Ms Tobin's alternative explanations for the correlation.

    When I met Ms Tobin at AERA, I introduced myself as a journalist. It is widely accepted that giving a journalist a copy of your research is an indication that you are happy for that research to be quoted, overriding any "not to be cited" comments on the paper itself. I regularly meet academics who do not want to give me a copy of their paper in its current state, or who ask me to check all quotations with them before the article goes to press. Ms Tobin did neither of those things.

    Unfortunately, the nature of journalism means that academic papers that are several thousand words in length are condensed into 500-word articles. Inevitably, some of the finer detail is lost in this process. This is why I always include references to an academic journal (where relevant) or contact details for the original author - so that anyone who is interested can read the full paper for themselves.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    17:43
    26 May, 2009

    Adi Bloom

  • It is true that this particular report has not been officiated but it is common sense, that fast- food/ junk food is not conducive to a healthy body, let alone healthy brain activity. There are thousands of studies reinforcing the fact that the brain excels when fueled by proper vitamins and nutrients, two words left out of the fast-fast equation.

    So, regardless of whether or not this specific study has been peer-reviewed, it is fair to jump to the conclusion that fast-food/ junk food is harming the intellectual capabilities of our children and their overall ability to grow into healthy adults.

    With this being said, as parents, teachers and caring citizens, we must fight the fast-food industry and stop them from preying on our children with their marketing schemes. While parents and education can make an impact on the dietary habits of our children, fast-food companies are set-on undermining this influence by constructing their venues within close proximity to schools across North America and using characters like Ronald McDonald to lure them.

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    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    15:48
    27 May, 2009

    geetha701

  • This article is fair. It represents my work well. It has a couple of minor errors, but in general, it's fine. It gives ample attention to alternate explanations for my findings.

    I was not aware that journalists consider sharing a paper tantamount to agreeing to have it reported upon, but I know now. I would've appreciated notification that this article was coming out, but I'll live.

    I'm troubled by some of the other papers that picked it up, skipped the nuance of Ms. Bloom's writeup, and rushed to conclusions, using words like "more stupid" (that were certainly not in my paper)...but overall, I did a rigorous study and I stand by what I found. Does it mean anything? I'll have to get back to you on that, once I get it published in an academic journal.

    Kerri Tobin

    Oh, and as for Junk Food Science, for all her rhetoric about bad journalism, she never contacted me and never read my paper -- she could have saved herself a lot of time and effort criticizing my work had she ever actually *seen* my work. A lot of the issues she brings up are directly addressed in the paper.

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    18:21
    27 May, 2009

    kerritobin

  • I regularly meet academics who do not want to give me a copy of their paper in its current state, or who ask me to check all quotations with them before the article goes to press. Ms Tobin did neither of those things.
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    7:29
    11 July, 2009

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  • Nowhere do I say that Ms Tobin collated this data herself. I say she "studied the impact of a fast-food diet on the schoolwork of more than 5,500 10 and 11-year-olds", which is correct.
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