Do Healthier Snacks Improve Brain Function in Children?

Scientists agree that nutritious food improves physical performance. But what about its impact on brain power?

  • Robin pours maple syrup into a cup to dip a protein bar in as students select nutritious shakes a...
    Robin pours maple syrup into a cup to dip a protein bar in as students select nutritious shakes and protein bars for a study at the Lawrence YMCA. 3/27/18 Photo by Mary Schwalm

A new study at Merrimack will attempt to answer this question by assessing whether nutrient-rich snacks improve cognitive functioning in children.

Assistant professor of health sciences Juliana Cohen and her students will conduct a three-month study among two groups of fourth- to seventh-graders in the after-school program at the YMCA in Lawrence, Massachusetts. After undergoing a baseline cognitive assessment, students will receive either standard snacks without added nutrients or nutrient-enriched snacks.

All of the enriched snacks, which will include shakes made with milk and fresh and frozen fruits and energy bars, will contain essential vitamins and minerals in addition to Omega 3 fatty acid and high-quality proteins. After the three-month trial, a follow-up cognitive measure will assess whether more nutrient-rich foods led to improved cognitive functioning.

“Research is increasingly suggesting that diet may play an important role in cognitive functioning, and we are excited to collaborate with the Lawrence YMCA to evaluate the impact of providing foods with all essential nutrients on cognitive outcomes associated with academic achievement,” said Cohen.

Irene Triantos ’18, a senior majoring in human development with minors in clinical/counseling psychology and public health, will be one of the students administering cognitive tests to the children.

“This research may allow us to see a correlation between healthy snack consumption and cognitive functioning,” she said. “I think it is important to know if junk foods have an effect on learning. It will be interesting to see the before and after on how children test during this research project, and I hope that this project turns into a learning experience not only for the researchers, but also for parents, teachers, children and everyone.” 

The data resulting from this research will be analyzed for possible publication in the summer.