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Fast Food Makes Kids Stupid

Fast food isn’t only a dumb choice environmentally, it can actually harm kids’ test scores, too. Factory-farmed meat? All that packaging? No thanks.

But if living a greener life isn’t a good enough reason for you and your family to avoid the junk, perhaps this is: kids who regularly eat fast food score lower on tests. Some kids had their test scored drop on literacy and mathematical tests by 16 percent compared to the average.

Kerri Tobin, who oversaw the research, said,

It is possible that the types of food served at fast food restaurants cause cognitive difficulties that result in lower test scores.

Wow. Just can’t picture Mickey D’s using that in a marketing campaign anytime soon. But the corporate giant isn’t the only culprit…


Let’s think about what schools feed our children. At this rural middle school, it’s deep-fried cheese or chicken fingers with ranch dipping sauce. Veggie option? An iceberg lettuce salad, also with ranch. Mmmm…Fat-tastic! I’m surprised deep-fried Twinkies don’t show up as dessert.

Here’s how the study went. It was performed by Vanderbilt University, where researchers examined the diets and test performance of 5,500 kids aged 10 and 11. Half of those kids had eaten fast food 3 times during the previous week. (That in itself is a WTF?! for me. “No, doctor, I have no idea why my child is obese!”) When testing the kiddos, researchers adjusted for other contributing factors such as parental income, race, and students’ weight. From the Telegraph:

In total, children scored between 58 and 181 points in the reading tests, gaining an average score of 141.5. But after taking other factors into account, pupils who ate fast food between four and six times a week scored almost seven points below average. Children snacking once a day fell 16 points, while pupils indulging three times a day dropped by 19 points.

The more the kids ate fast food, the lower the test scores. Perhaps our public schools need to avoid solely focusing on their standardized tests, and instead outreach to families to teach healthy eating. Because obese and unintelligent is hardly a legacy our children deserve.

Image: neil cummings on Flickr under a Creative Commons License.


  1. I winder if any socio-economic elements were brought into the study?

  2. Yes. Actually, the researchers adjusted for factors such as parents’ income (along with race and students’ weight). It seems like a pretty wide study that was adjusted for properly.
    Now…what the heck is in the food that could be causing this?!

  3. Let’s look at what’s in the food, but let’s also add to the study HOW this food is consumed. I can’t speak to school lunches, but if you’re getting fast food during family time, you’re probably not bringing it home, putting it on a plate and sitting down- away from a TV, to a nice family dinner filled with stimulating conversation. But maybe I have it wrong. When we get fast food, I’m usually tossing the chicken nuggets to the back seat while we drive somewhere or she’s sitting at the table while I’m flying through the house trying to finish whatever it is that was more important that cooking dinner at the time.

  4. It is a common mistake to report correlation (relatively easy to uncover) with causality (relatively difficult to prove). The underlying study to this article, which according to a couple other web sites, hasn’t been peer reviewed or published, doesn’t appear to establish causality. I think it does both you and the author a disservice to make more of the study than it actually claims. It may be the seed of breakthrough research, but it doesn’t appear to be there yet.

    I’m certainly not a fast food apologist, but my kids enjoy McDonald’s and we do go there to eat every so often. We are careful to present a variety of healthy food options for most meals and discuss how it is important to balance the foods that their mouths like (sweets and McDonalds) with the the foods that their bodies need to be healthy and grow (veggies, whole grains, non-fatty proteins, etc).

  5. Randall says:

    Cate, my guess would be that MSG is the chief culprit here.

  6. Kimberly says:

    You don’t have to do a study, or be a health expert to know that fast food is low in nutrients…why would you want to eat the “healthy” (just look at the chemicals and sugar in the dressing) alternatives when you can just as quickly whip up a wholesome salad at home…whether you eat chicken nuggets in the back seat, or in the most pleasant environment, it most likely isn’t going to feed your brain, or much else!

  7. Dr. Joe says:

    In defense of McDonalds, they never said they were healthy. They promise you roughly the exact same tasting food at every Micky-D’s around the world. That requires a lot of chemicals to do so. The fries are the best because of salt and sugar. It all goes back to parent responsibility. It’s very healthy to say NO. and the times we do allow the kids to have the treat we do so on the condition of haveing eaten fresh veggies before hand. Cold, raw, and sliced…and never a complaint because they are offered balance. We are not perfect parents, but we are finding balance

  8. Whether or not this study reveals correlation or causality, McDonald’s and other fast food chains are aggressively marketing their food to children, leaving them without a real choice at a vulnerable age. Don’t let McDonald’s strategically place their restaurants in the center of school districts anymore. Visit http://www.ValueTheMeal.org for more information and ways to hold this corporation accountable.

  9. Charlie says:

    “…had their test ‘scored’ drop…”? Cate, have you been eating fast food again?

  10. Charlie:
    I apologize for the typo.
    I don’t eat fast food, nor does anyone I care for.

  11. I’m not sure all of the information here is present. What about the amount of time the parents spend with their kids? If they are handing them happy meals for dinner, something tells me that they either don’t have the time to feed their kids properly or don’t want to. If that’s the case, then what’s to say they have the time or energy to help their kids study or with their homework…or let alone enforce that their kids are doing their homework?


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