Food is more than physical fuel. A diet powers the mind, too, and can affect a child's ability to learn how to read, as Finnish researchers have found.
Food is the most powerful tool for ensuring a child’s physical health. A ‘clean’ diet that is rich in whole, fresh foods and low in sugar and additives will help a child to maintain a healthy weight, be active and energetic, and not suffer from chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes.
Less discussed, but of equal importance, is the power that food holds over mental development. Children desperately need a healthy balanced diet in order to think clearly, to learn effectively, to behave themselves with greater ease, and to relax, and yet this aspect of dietary health is often overlooked in the flurry of discussion about the North American obesity pandemic.
A study from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland hopes to draw attention to the importance of feeding children well for the sake of their minds. Published in the European Journal of Nutrition, the study assessed the impact of diet on reading comprehension and test scores and found that what a child eats plays a major role in improving mental performance.
There were 161 study participants between the ages of 6 and 8, attending grades 1, 2, and 3 at school. Food diaries were kept of everything they ate during those three years at school, and whatever diet was closest to the standard Baltic Sea Diet and Finnish nutrition recommendations, i.e. high in vegetables, fruit and berries, fish, whole grain, and unsaturated fats and low in red meat, sugary products, and saturated fat, the healthier it was considered. Academic performance was tracked by standardized tests.
The researchers found that children whose diets were healthiest scored better on tests measuring reading comprehension compared to their peers who did not have as healthy a diet. The study also found that students with healthy diets improved more quickly in reading ability from grade 1 to grades 2 and 3 than those students who didn’t eat as well.
Says researcher Eero Haapala, one of the study co-authors:
“Another significant observation is that the associations of diet quality with reading skills were also independent of many confounding factors, such as socio-economic status, physical activity, body adiposity, and physical fitness.”
Here is yet more evidence for the importance of feeding children well, and teaching them to enjoy a fresh, varied diet from a young age. By improving their cafeteria and breakfast programs, schools could see benefits in the form of better test scores and more satisfied, focused students, a win-win situation for all.