An Excess of Fast Food May Deprive Children of Brain Boosting Nutrition


Numerous research studies have already documented the adverse effects that fast food diets have on both children and adults when it comes to weight control and overall physical health. Now, scientists are researching the effects of fast food diets on the mental development, amid growing concerns that such high-fat, high-calorie diets are also affecting the development of the mental processes of the children raised on them. Since almost 40 percent of most children’s diets are made up of processed fats and artificial sugars, that qualifies as a major health concern.

Dr. Katy Purtell, assistant professor of human sciences at Ohio State University, has been researching the correlation between fast food diets and the mental acuity of the children being raised on such diets. Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort that began with a group of kindergarten students in 1998, Dr. Purtell and her team have been evaluating the intellectual performance of the children in the study with their eating habits. To do this, the children were given a battery of science, reading, and math tests when they were in the fifth grade, and the same children were tested again in eighth grade. The children were also asked to complete questionnaires about their food consumption.

The researchers found that children who ate a high in fast food diet scored up to 20 percent lower in eighth grade reading, science and math tests when compared to children who did not eat any fast food. Interestingly, the children who ate fast food one to three times a week scored just as high as those who did not eat any fast food in the reading and science tests, but lower in math. The research results suggest that fast foods may be lacking sufficient quantities of important nutrients, such as iron, that have been linked to the development of cognitive functions, indicating that growing brains that are deprived of such nutrients may not develop properly.

When they were in the fifth grade, 71 percent of the children in the study consumed fast foods during the week before they were asked to fill out their questionnaires. Almost 10 percent of the children ate fast food every day, another 10 percent ate it between four and six times in a single week. The majority of the children had eaten this type of meal between one and three times in the week before they were asked to recall their diets. Only 29 percent of the children reported that they had not had any fast food meals in the week before they were given the questionnaire.

The Clinical Pediatrics article adds new concerns to the list of factors that researchers believe may affect a child’s mental ability. Other factors that have been previously documented include the amount of exercise that children get, the socioeconomic status of their family, the amount of nutritious food such as fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats that they receive, the type of neighborhood that they grow up in, and the hours they spend watching television.

The researchers controlled for all of these variables in the data in order to show only the effect of diet, but f these factors are so intermingled that it is difficult to single out just one variable. Parents in poor families are more likely to work long hours, have a lower disposable income and therefore not have the time and resources to cook nutritious meals from scratch for their children. Those long work days also mean that children whose parents are not at home wind up watching a greater amount of television, and get less exercise.

One of the problems with this study, however, is that fast foods run the gamut from very unhealthy to quite acceptable. There is obviously a big nutritional difference between a turkey and avocado sandwich on whole wheat from Subway, and a Big Mac with fries and a shake from McDonald’s, but both meals were categorized as fast foods for the purposes of this study, nor did the study take into account what the children were eating when they weren’t eating fast food diets. There are also many foods that are not usually considered fast food, but are probably worse than fast foods in terms of their nutritional content. A bowl of Lucky Charms cereal from General Foods, consists of nothing but artificial sugars and processed carbohydrates, unless someone adds fresh fruit to the bowl.

If a child has fast food four times a week at dinnertime, but gets a nutritious breakfast of scrambled eggs every morning, that child will have a very different nutritional profile from the child who was given fast food in the evening four times a week, and Lucky Charms cereal breakfast in the morning. When coupled with an otherwise nutritious diet of oily fish and good quality grass-fed meat along with plenty of essential fats, fruits and vegetables, the odd hamburger is not going to do much damage. Problems are more likely to occur when a child is fed an excess of fast foods alongside other processed foods and without enough fresh fruits and vegetables or omega 3 and 6 fats.

Dr. Purtell says that the researchers are not trying to tell parents to never feed their children processed foods, or fast food take-out, but to limit their processed food intake as much as possible.