Impact of eating disorders on cognitive abilities and functioning in school

Eating disorders can profoundly affect a child’s ability to learn. Understanding some of the ways an eating disorder can affect cognitive function may help educators recognize that a student may be in trouble. Listed below are key ways that an eating disorder can affect a child’s cognitive functioning because of poor nutrition. A child’s cognitive function will also be affected by the mental disorders that often coexist with an eating disorder, including anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A review of the research on the impact of undernutrition found that undernutrition

    • can have detrimental effects on cognitive development in children;
    • has a negative impact on student behavior and school performance;
    • makes students feel irritable, decreases ability to concentrate and focus, decreases ability to listen and process information, may cause nausea and headache, and makes students feel fatigued and have lack of energy;
    • makes students with disordered eating behaviors less able to perform tasks as well as their adequately nourished peers;
    • leads to deficiencies in specific nutrients, such as iron, which has an immediate effect on students’ memory and ability to concentrate;
    • can make students become less active and more apathetic, withdrawn, and engage in fewer social interactions;
    • can impair the immune system and make students more vulnerable to illnesses; and increase absenteeism in affected students because of the above impairments.

Despite malnourishment, the perfectionist attitude of those who suffer from anorexia and bulimia may compel them to maintain a high level of academic performance, which is even more difficult given their compromised physical and mental status.

In addition to the effects described above, preoccupation with food often dominates the life of a student with an eating disorder. A survey of 1,000 people with a diagnosis of an eating disorder found that people with bulimia nervosa spend 70% to 90% of their total conscious time thinking about food and weight issues (Reiff and Lampson-Reiff 1999). People with disordered eating were found to think about food for roughly 20% to 65% of their waking hours. In comparison, females with normal eating habits spend about 15 minutes per day of waking time thinking about food, weight, and hunger.