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The Standard American Diet Negatively Impacts Learning and Memory

By Dr. Kathie F. Nunley
© 2014

Americans have increased their daily consumption of calories by more than 25% over the past 50 years. We are now beginning to see the deleterious effect this diet change is having on our brains, particularly in how it impacts learning and memory.

Increased caloric consumption and its associated weight gain has been linked to many health related problems such as high blood pressure, insulin levels and measures of inflammation. But we are now seeing a wide range of research projects linking these high insulin levels and inflammation to cognitive problems, both in young children trying to learn and aging adults and the rise in Alzheimer's.

The biggest area of concern for educators is the effect these diets have on the hippocampus - the brain region in charge of memory formation - the cornerstone to learning. The vast majority of the increased calories consumed is coming from saturated fats and refined carbohydrates. Diets high in fats and refined sugars cause significant impairment to the hippocampus. These diets slow neurogenesis, the hippocampus' ability to regrow and replenish new neurons; they also have a negative effect on synaptic plasticity and they lead to a decrease in chemicals responsible for neuron growth.

Another problem associated with our American diet is how it undermines emotional-enhanced learning. Normally, a moderate amount of stress or emotional excitement leads to an increase in learning and retention. But diets high in sugar and high fructose corn syrup, cause a decrease in stress-induced corticosterone release. That means, they negate the effect. So while we would expect highly motivated, excited children, under a moderate amount of stress, to learn faster and perform better on tests, we may have lost that advantage due to our high sugar diets.

While much of this research has been done using rats in a laboratory, we are also seeing new reserach using humans in the real world. And this research also points to the problems associated with high sugar diets that are also low in Omega-3 fatty acids (another hallmark of the Standard American Diet).

One piece of research, out of UCLA, showed that students with high sugar intake and the common high Omega 6 / low Omega 3 diet, had lower cognitive scores and insulin resistance. The good news in this reserach is that Interestingly, once diets were supplemented with high Omega-3 foods, many of the the negative cognitive effects of the high sugar diets were eliminated.

A separate research project looked at the diets of children aged 7 - 9. They compared groups of children who had diets high in saturated fatty acids (Omega-6) with those whose diets were higher in Omega-3 fatty acids. Those children high in Omega 6's had much lower memory and learning scores than did children whose diets include high Omega-3 fatty acids. The children who had high Omega-3 diets just had better hippocampal function.

Solution Suggestions:

So what are educators and parents to do? Education in our schools should include information on how children learn best and that includes nutrition. Schools need to be an example of how to create healthier climates for learning. These could include:

Eliminating High Fructose Corn Syrup and high Omega-6 oils from the cafeteria and vending. (read labels, avoid vegetable oil, corn oil and "hydrogenated" anything).

Increase availability of Omega-3 rich foods: These include fish, flax, olive oil, coconut, coconut oil, avacado, olives, palm oil, and fats from animals fed natural diets.

Educating students in the difference between Healthy Fats and Unhealthy Fats.

Making healthy food convenient. (Apples should always be presented sliced and ready for dipping if we want them to compete with french fries!) Move healthier options to the front and discount their price. Make unhealthy food more expensive and harder to find.

Encourage lower caloric intake by providing higher protein options which eliminate snacking and hunger throughout the day.

Educate staff, parents and students on the advantages of lower caloric diets, high in Omega-3 fatty acids, low in Omega-6 foods and eliminating high fructose corn syrup completely from the diet.


Agrawal R & Gomez-Pinilla F (2012). "Metabolic syndrom in the brain: deficiency in omega-3 fatty acid exacerbates dysfunctions in insulin receptor signalling and cognition." Journal of Physiology 590, 2485–2499.

Baym, C. et al (2014). "Dietary Lipids are differentially associated with hippocampal-dependent relational memory in prepubescent children." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol 99(5); 1026-1032.

Chilukuri, M. & Doraiswarmy, M. 2009. "Does Eating Fewer Calories Improve the Brain?". Scientific American. March.

Grotto, D., & Zied, E. (2010). The standard American diet and its relationship to the health status of Americans. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 25, 603–612.

Ross, A.; Darling, J; & Parent, M. (2013). "High Energy Diets Prevent the Enhancing Effects of Emotional Arousal on Memory." Behavioral Neuroscience, Vol 127(5), 771-779.

About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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