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Food and Intelligence

HK BioTek Intern

Whether or not food is related to intelligence has been a hot issue among parents especially in Asian region like Hong Kong with an exam-oriented education system. Some parents may force their children to eat spring onions because its pronunciation in Cantonese is similar to the word intelligence. Some may buy many energy drinks during revision period to show their support to children while some use chicken essence or black coffee to boost the concentration level. Some may think that luxurious food can help with academic performance and thus buy bird’s nest and shark fin. Definitely, food would affect the intelligence, known as the cognitive ability which affects memory, learning and attention even though the detailed mechanism behind is still unclear. With all the different proposed relationships between different food and intelligence, what kind of diet is indeed beneficial to the academic performance of students?

It is common that students would consume snacks and sweet beverages when studying or having a rest during study intervals as they feel tired and need some energy replenishment. Some may think that consumption of sweetened foods or drinks can provide brain with sufficient glucose to stay focused. However, studies have shown the opposite is true. It is found that diet affects the way of signals and messages are transduced in brain, which in term our learning ability. Diet rich in refined carbohydrates including the sweetened snacks and beverages can indeed interfere with such transmission of signals and thus the learning process. Not only that, it may also lead to some behaviors that would impact the academic performance.

In fact, not only does sweetened snacks and beverages would negatively influence the academic performance, but an overall unhealthy dietary pattern and a high body mass index (BMI) would also hinder the learning. According to studies, consumption of energy-dense and unhealthy food with higher calories, saturated fats and carbohydrates but lower protein, vitamins and minerals is negatively correlated to the performance in various subjects. When comparing the BMI of the study respondents, it is also found that obese and overweight children would have poorer academic performance than those with normal body weight. On the other hand, a healthy diet would help with the learning ability, including milk especially with micronutrient fortified, vegetables, fruits, as well as fish high in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. These food groups are crucial for our cognitive ability as the nutrients inside, such as the omega-3 fatty acids in fish and polyphenols in vegetables and fruits, can help boost our learning with antioxidant avoiding inflammation and better signaling function in brain.

Besides, having regular meals especially breakfast shows positive effects on the learning outcomes of students. Studies have found that students with habitual consumption of breakfast would achieve high scores in various subjects compared with those who rarely eat breakfast. In particular, the quality of breakfast also matters. It is suggested that breakfast with a diverse range of food groups with sufficient energy would result in better outcomes. However, it is expected that many students may not have enough time to eat breakfast before school. In fact, there are also some good and convenient options for breakfast, such as eggs, fruits, whole wheat bread and breakfast cereals fortified with micronutrients, milk or soymilk etc. All of these options do not require cooking yet providing sufficient energy and nutrients for staying focused in class in the morning.

Therefore, adopting a healthy lifestyle is necessary not only for the health of pupils but also their academic performance. It is understandable that students would crave for energy-dense food when they are overwhelmed or frustrated by study. Therefore, education and promotion of healthy lifestyles in campus may be needed. Apart from that, it would be great if the schools can put effort into upholding the nutritional quality of the meals and snacks sold in canteens as students are spending most of their time at school. Working on the food consumed at school would be a direct way to help students adopt a healthy diet.

Apart from that, common phenomenon is that the time for physical activity would be reduced if exam is coming or Secondary 6 students are not allowed to join any sports teams. However, according to the WHO, children and adolescents should exercise for 60 minutes a day, indicating that it is important to exercise in order to maintain the body weight within a normal range and it is good for our health. Therefore, in terms of diet and physical activity, it is hoped that parents and schools can work together to maintain the health of pupils while aiding the learning process.


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  2. Adolphus, K., Lawton, C. L., & Dye, L. (2019). Associations Between Habitual School-Day Breakfast Consumption Frequency and Academic Performance in British Adolescents. Frontiers in public health, 7, 283.

  3. Alqahtani, Y., Assiri, O., Al-Shahrani, N., Alyazidi, N., & Alshahrani, M. (2020). Relationship between nutritional habits and school performance among primary school students in Asser Region. Journal of family medicine and primary care, 9(4), 1986–1990.

  4. Barchitta, M., Maugeri, A., Agrifoglio, O., Favara, G., La Mastra, C., La Rosa, M. C., Magnano San Lio, R., & Agodi, A. (2019). Dietary patterns and school performance: evidence from a sample of adolescents in Sicily, Italy. Annali di igiene : medicina preventiva e di comunita, 31(2 Supple 1), 72–80.

  5. Bleiweiss-Sande, R., Chui, K., Wright, C., Amin, S., Anzman-Frasca, S., & Sacheck, J. M. (2019). Associations between Food Group Intake, Cognition, and Academic Achievement in Elementary Schoolchildren. Nutrients, 11(11), 2722.

  6. Correa-Burrows, P., Burrows, R., Blanco, E., Reyes, M., & Gahagan, S. (2016). Nutritional quality of diet and academic performance in Chilean students. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 94(3), 185–192.

  7. Kim, S. H., Kim, W. K., & Kang, M. H. (2016). Relationships between milk consumption and academic performance, learning motivation and strategy, and personality in Korean adolescents. Nutrition research and practice, 10(2), 198–205.

  8. Wang, X., Hui, Z., Dai, X., Terry, P. D., Zhang, Y., Ma, M., Wang, M., Deng, F., Gu, W., Lei, S., Li, L., Ma, M., & Zhang, B. (2017). Micronutrient-Fortified Milk and Academic Performance among Chinese Middle School Students: A Cluster-Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrients, 9(3), 226.

  9. Wu, N., Chen, Y., Yang, J., & Li, F. (2017). Childhood Obesity and Academic Performance: The Role of Working Memory. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 611.

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