Breast Milk Study May Explain Why Asians Are Better at Math

Sep 16, 2014 at 11:51 AM ET

Although the U.S. spends more on education than any other nation, students in Asian countries consistently have an edge over Americans when it comes to academic performance. The discrepancy often confounds and frustrates U.S. policy-makers, and now a new study about the effects of diet on test performance may explain why the nation’s students are lagging.

According to research by the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of Pittsburgh, students from countries with diets high in omega-3 fats (healthy fats found in oily fish, flax seeds, dark leafy greens) and low in omega-6 fats (those in processed foods in the form of corn and soybean oils) score higher on international tests. Remarkably, each nation’s diet was a better predictor of test performance than the GDP or the number of dollars spent per student in school. For this reason, U.S. students—raised in a country that consumes record low levels of omega-3 and loads of omega-6—are likely falling short of their academic potential.

“Brains are not made out of air,” says Dr. Steven Gaulin, UCSB professor of anthropology and a co-author of the study. “Omega-3 is required for every aspect of brain development and everyday functioning, and a brain that is deprived of it is not going to do its job as well.”

For their research, Gaulin and his colleague Dr. Will Lassek, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, looked at the levels of omega-3 (or DHA) and omega-6 (or linoleic acid) found in the breast milk from women in 28 countries, a measure that is reflective of the region’s long-term diet. They then compared those values with how well children in each country performed on tests administered by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures math, reading and science abilities in 15-year-olds.

According to their results, those countries that consume the highest levels of omega-3 and the lowest levels of omega-6 performed the best across all three subjects, regardless of the national income and educational expenditures. These include Japan, China, South Korea and Finland, among others, all of which spend an average of nearly $3,000 less on education per student annually than the United States.

“Our findings were entirely antithetical to the America diet,” Gaulin says. “Here, the average omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is 21 to 1.”

Both fats are essential for optimal brain performance and must be obtained through diet, but today the average American is consuming far too much omega-6 and not nearly enough omega-3, which burdens the brain with a major cognitive disadvantage. According to Gaulin and Lassek, this dietary disparity is the fault of modern U.S. food policy and industrial agriculture, which provides some of the lowest levels of omega-3 in the world. It’s also responsible for some of the highest levels of omega-6 in the form of government-subsidized corn and soy, the agricultural bedrocks of the Western diet. Today almost all processed foods contain corn or soy byproducts. And because cows and chickens are fed corn, counter to their native diets, even animal products—like meat, eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt—contain unnatural levels of omega-6.

“There is no parallel in human history,” Lassek says of the modern American diet. “We’ve never consumed this much omega-6 before. It’s extraordinary and unusual and runs counter to everything in our evolutionary past.”

Fortunately, American students do enjoy certain economic advantages that appear to be keeping them ahead of students in other unhealthy nations such as Argentina and Brazil, but that’s not much to feel proud of. “If I had to choose between a better economy or a better diet,” Gaulin says, “I’d choose a better diet.”