Mediterranean Diet and Exercise Improve Working Memory in Young Students

Adherence to the Mediterranean diet and physical activity was linked with enhanced working memory in school-age children in a recent study.
By Paolo DeAndreis
Mar. 14, 2023 07:09 UTC

Young stu­dents fol­low­ing the Mediterranean diet and exer­cis­ing reg­u­larly demon­strated improved work­ing mem­ory, accord­ing to the results of a new study.

Working mem­ory refers to a sys­tem in the brain respon­si­ble for tem­porar­ily hold­ing and manip­u­lat­ing infor­ma­tion nec­es­sary for per­form­ing com­plex cog­ni­tive tasks.

The researchers believe their find­ings should be con­sid­ered when devel­op­ing pub­lic pro­grams and edu­ca­tional poli­cies tar­get­ing school-age chil­dren.

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Working mem­ory is a short-term mem­ory; it is the abil­ity to remem­ber infor­ma­tion and to build on it,” Laura Dallolio, a researcher at the University of Bologna and co-author of the study, told Olive Oil Times. It is like hav­ing a black­board one can take notes on, retain and elab­o­rate on.”

Using a stan­dard test in work­ing mem­ory research, the researchers gave 106 stu­dents aged 6 to 10 from the north­ern Italian town of Imola a series of num­bers to remem­ber, ask­ing them to repeat the num­bers back in reverse order.

By grad­u­ally adding new num­bers to the series, thus increas­ing the dif­fi­culty of the chal­lenge, sci­en­tists could test the lim­its of the effi­ciency of the stu­dents’ work­ing mem­ory.

We did not expect these results, as the ben­e­fi­cial effects of the Mediterranean diet on stu­dents have rarely been researched, and they are usu­ally broadly asso­ci­ated with well-being and gen­eral health,” Dallolio said.

Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet is a way of eat­ing that is based on the tra­di­tional dietary pat­terns of the coun­tries that bor­der the Mediterranean Sea. The diet empha­sizes the con­sump­tion of plant-based foods, includ­ing fruits, veg­eta­bles, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and extra vir­gin olive oil, with mod­er­ate amounts of fish, poul­try and dairy prod­ucts.

The researchers explained that bet­ter work­ing mem­ory is linked with improved learn­ing skills, affect­ing aca­d­e­mic achieve­ment and oppor­tu­nity.

Language skills, read­ing com­pre­hen­sion, math­e­mat­ics and rea­son­ing are all impacted by work­ing mem­ory. It is a func­tion that con­tin­ues devel­op­ing until about 12,” Dallolio said.

Along with prob­lem-solv­ing, self-con­trol and men­tal flex­i­bil­ity, work­ing mem­ory is among the main exec­u­tive brain func­tions, all of which are inter­re­lated.

Research has proven that phys­i­cal activ­ity and the Mediterranean diet affect cog­ni­tive func­tion,” Francesco Esposito, a researcher at the University of Bologna and co-author of the study, told Olive Oil Times. It has also shown that the intake of polyphe­nols and other Mediterranean diet con­tents impact cog­ni­tive health.”

In the lat­est edi­tion of the MedDiet pyra­mid, phys­i­cal activ­ity is shown at the base of the pyra­mid,” he added. That is because dietary habits and phys­i­cal activ­ity are strictly con­nected, so they are con­sid­ered together.”

It is a vir­tu­ous cir­cle,” Alice Masini, a researcher at the University of Bologna and co-author of the study, told Olive Oil Times. One can­not say if more sig­nif­i­cant phys­i­cal activ­ity comes from health­ier dietary choices or vice versa. They are two aspects deeply linked to each other.”

When we see the data col­lected from the par­tic­i­pat­ing schools, we can­not say if the out­come is due to the dietary habits or to the phys­i­cal activ­ity, as the focus is on the whole of the impact and out­comes,” she added.


To eval­u­ate the Mediterranean diet adher­ence of the stu­dents, researchers col­lected data from par­ents and care­givers about their children’s eat­ing habits.

Using a bench­mark food index, researchers assigned pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive scores to the dif­fer­ent food choices to mea­sure the impact of healthy and less healthy diets.

See Also:Mediterranean Diet Might Mitigate ADHD in Children, Study Suggests

As an exam­ple, the index assigns a pos­i­tive score to the reg­u­lar daily con­sump­tion of veg­eta­bles,” Rossella Sacchetti, a researcher at the University of Bologna and co-author of the research, told Olive Oil Times. On the con­trary, it gives a neg­a­tive score to dietary intake that does not belong to the healthy model of the Mediterranean diet, such as not hav­ing break­fast, eat­ing fast food or con­sum­ing sweets daily.”

Thanks to this index, we were able to pair the food scores of the pupils to their work­ing mem­ory abil­i­ties,” she added. Previous stud­ies focused on the con­sump­tion of spe­cific nutri­ents or spe­cific groups of foods.”

The data col­lected from stu­dents and fam­i­lies also show a tan­gi­ble rela­tion­ship between a father’s edu­ca­tion sta­tus and a student’s healthy food intake and work­ing mem­ory out­comes.

According to the researchers, these find­ings demon­strate how fam­ily-based fac­tors deter­mine cru­cial aspects of chil­dren’s cog­ni­tive func­tions.

That rela­tion­ship was very evi­dent in all our analy­sis,” Esposito said. The fathers’ degree of edu­ca­tion was linked to the fam­i­ly’s socio-eco­nomic sta­tus and the children’s work­ing mem­ory. This impacts healthy food choices and sport prac­tice oppor­tu­ni­ties.”

However, the researchers said fur­ther stud­ies inves­ti­gat­ing the cog­ni­tive health impacts of fol­low­ing the Mediterranean diet and exer­cise must be done to con­firm these find­ings.

If we want to estab­lish and under­stand a cause-effect rela­tion­ship [between Mediterranean diet adher­ence and work­ing mem­ory func­tions], such lon­gi­tu­di­nal stud­ies should unfold across longer peri­ods of time,” Sacchetti said.

Our future research will also focus on how dietary habits and phys­i­cal activ­ity can exert a role in deter­min­ing the inhibitory abil­i­ties of chil­dren, which are essen­tial to devel­op­ing self-con­trol suc­cess­fully,” Masini added.

The research team said they are cur­rently work­ing on more broad research around the impact of con­sum­ing the Mediterranean diet on young stu­dents.


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