The research published in the European Journal of Nutrition, followed 161 children in Finland aged between six and eight. The quality of their diet was analysed using food diaries and evaluated according to Finnish nutritional recommendations.
The closer a child’s eating habits were to the Baltic Sea Diet - high in fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, fish and low fat milk, and low in sugar, saturated fats and red meat – the healthier it was considered.
The study shows that children with higher quality diets perform better in standardised tests measuring reading, fluency and comprehension, when compared to children whose diets are low in nutritional value.
The results also show that the association between diet and reading level is significant regardless of starting skills at Grade 1 (six-years-old), indicating that healthy eating is important in improving literacy at school age.
Associations were also found to be independent of socio-economic status and physical fitness.
Finnish nutritional recommendations differ from other healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean diet - also high in fruits and vegetables, moderate in protein and low in sodium and saturated fats – in the emphasis on the intake of polyunsaturated fats found in fish, and consuming low-fat milk. In Finland, milk is the major dietary source of vitamin D for children, which has been suggested to promote normal cognitive development.
In their paper, the authors suggest that the results ‘can be used in planning interventions aimed at increasing academic performance in children’.
Lead author Eero Haapala, from the University of Eastern Finland, said, ‘I think that improving school lunch quality is one of the easiest ways to improve diet quality and thereby to support learning.’
‘I suggest that by simply following nutrition recommendations we may be able to improve school performance. No magic or tricks, just very basics of a healthy diet.’
‘Increasing the consumption of vegetables, greens (and other colourful foods) and fish, and decreasing consumption of fast foods are good starting points.’
In Finland, school meals are already provided to all children free of charge. These meals are prepared according to Finnish nutritional recommendations therefore children are guaranteed at least one healthy meal each day.
It is a significant consideration for educational providers, as 8 per cent of education costs per pupil are spent on the provision of a healthy meal.
Free and healthy school meals in Finland are thought to have contributed to steady improvements in national health since the 1970s, when the country was considered to be one of the unhealthiest in Europe, and levels of heart disease were among the highest in the world.
When contributing to the School Food Plan for England, Pekka Puska, from the National Institute of Public Health in Helsinki, said ‘all of the evidence shows that a childhood habit for healthy eating is likely to stay with you for life’.
In England, infant free school meals are provided to pupils in Reception, Years One and Two. Uptake across the country for school-provided lunches is low at 43 per cent, with the majority electing to bring in a packed lunch.
Earlier this month, Nursery World recently reported that only 1.6 per cent of packed lunches meet recommended nutritional standards. Many lack essential vitamins and fibre, and few contain any vegetables or salad.
It was reported in the School Food Plan, that schools in England which have trialed universal free school meals notice significant academic benefits. Children at these schools were on average two months ahead of their peers, and between 3-5 per cent more children reached targets for English and maths at Key Stage One.
The plan recommends the provision of free school meals to all children in primary school.