A healthy diet may improve children’s reading skills, says study

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Good eating habits are very important for children’s health and development. Recently, a study shows that diet quality is related to academic achievement. In particular, a healthy diet may improve children’s reading skills. The finding is published in European Journal of Nutrition.

Researchers from University of Eastern Finland, University of Jyväskylä, and Kuopio Research Institute of Exercise Medicine worked together to conduct a dietary intervention study.

The participants were 161 Finnish children aged 6-8 years old in Grade 1-3. Researchers assessed their diet habits using 4-day food records and several tests, including Mediterranean Diet Score, Baltic Sea Diet Score, and Finnish Children Healthy Eating Index (FCHEI).

In addition, each child’s academic achievement was assessed with reading fluency, reading comprehension, and arithmetic skill tests.

When examining the relation between diet quality and academic achievement, researchers controlled the influences of age, sex, parental education, income, physical activity, body fat, and energy intake.

The result showed that Mediterranean Diet Score was positively related to reading comprehension in Grade 3. Mediterranean Diet Score is widely used to assess eating habits. It checks the weekly intake of 9 food groups: cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, potatoes, fish, meat, poultry, dairy, as well as olive oil and alcohol intake.

The result also showed that Baltic Sea Diet Score was positively related to reading fluency in Grade 2-3 and reading comprehension in Grade 1-3. Baltic Sea Diet Score is a tool for assessing healthy eating in Nordic countries.

In addition, FCHEI was positively related to reading fluency in Grades 1–2 and reading comprehension in Grades 1–3.

Direct comparisons showed that children in the highest third of Baltic Sea Diet Score and FCHEI had better reading fluency and reading comprehension in Grades 1-3 than children in the lowest third. None of the diet scores was associated with children’s arithmetic skills.

Researchers suggest that a high intake of vegetables, fruit, berries, fish, and nuts in childhood is associated with better academic achievement in later years. A healthy, balanced diet may boost brain functions and improve performance in reading, a task requiring complex cognitive processes.

Interestingly, better diet quality is linked to better reading skills but not arithmetic skills. One possible reason is that reading is much more complex than basic arithmetic calculations. Future research will explore the specific effects of healthy diet on different academic skills.


Citation: Haapala EA, et al. (2016). Diet quality and academic achievement: a prospective study among primary school children. European Journal of Nutrition, doi: 10.1007/s00394-016-1270-5.
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