Boosting children's reading skills with healthy diets


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Trying to get picky eaters to eat their dark, leafy greens can be challenging — especially when you're up against commercials for fast food and sugar-loaded treats. But healthy eating really does start at home, and now there's even more incentive to get the finickiest children to eat better diets. A group of researchers in Finland have linked healthy diets to better reading skills in the first three years of school.

Published in the European Journal of Nutrition, the study constitutes part of the Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children Study conducted at the University of Eastern Finland and the First Steps Study conducted at the University of Jyväskylä.

The study involved 161 children ages 6-8 years old and tracked their progress from first grade through third. The team used food diaries to analyze the quality of their children's diets, and used standardized tests to analyze their academic skills. The closer the diet followed the Baltic Sea Diet and Finnish nutrition recommendations — that is, a diet consisting of 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.

Children who followed the Baltic Sea Diet, the team found, did better in tests measuring reading skills than their peers who at a poorer-quality diet.

The study also found that the positive associations of diet quality with reading skills in grades 2 and 3 were independent of reading skills in grade 1. These results indicate that children with healthier diets improved more in their reading skills from grade 1 to grades 2-3 than children with poorer diet quality.

"Another significant observation is that the associations of diet quality with reading skills were also independent of many confounding factors, such as socioeconomic status, physical activity, body adiposity and physical fitness," says Researcher Eero Haapala, PhD, from the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Jyväskylä.

A healthy diet seems to be an important factor in supporting learning and academic performance in children. By making healthy choices every meal, it is possible to promote a healthy diet and enhance diet quality.

The team urges parents and schools to consider the effect they can have in making healthy foods available to children. "Furthermore," the team concludes, "governments and companies play a key role in promoting the availability and production of healthy foods."

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