Want your child to do well in school? Pass the broccoli…. and hold the cordial

Every parent wants their child to have the best chance at success in life, and like it or not, how well a child does at school is an important determinant of their future employment opportunities and earning capacity, which in turn affects health status, personal fulfillment and life satisfaction.

Parents often invest considerable amounts of money in after-school tutoring and private school fees to try to improve their child’s academic attainment, but many are neglecting one of the most important ways they can help their child: by controlling what’s in the breakfast bowl, lunch box and dinner plate each day.

A new study that examined the associations between children’s eating habits and their NAPLAN scores has found that eating vegetables improves academic performance, while drinking sugar sweetened beverages such as soft drinks and cordial impairs it.

Researchers examined data on five dietary variables (fruit intake; vegetable intake; consumption of takeaway; sugar sweetened beverages; and breakfast) and scores in the five domains (reading, writing, grammar/punctuation, spelling and numeracy) of NAPLAN, a standardised academic achievement test that all Australian children sit in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.

Because the income and educational level of parents affects children’s academic attainment, the researchers adjusted for these factors statistically so they could zero in on the effects of diet on test scores.

Consumption of sugar sweetened beverages such as cordial and soft drinks had the greatest impact on NAPLAN test scores, with higher intake associated with lower overall scores, and negatively impacting on four out of the five assessment domains – reading, writing, numeracy and grammar/punctuation.

Kids who drank 4-6 glasses per day of sugary beverages scored an average of 46 points lower in the reading domain than kids who drank less than 1 glass per day.

On the other hand, kids who ate vegetables with the evening meal performed significantly better on the spelling and writing tests than those who ate vegetables less often, and tended to do better on the grammar/punctuation and numeracy tests as well.

In fact, eating vegetables with dinner every night of the week was associated with an average 86 point higher score on the NAPLAN writing test than never eating vegetables at night.

Sadly, over half of the children in this study ate less fruit and vegetables and a quarter drank more sugar sweetened beverages than recommended by the Australian Dietary Guidelines, which in my opinion set pretty low standards – 2 pieces of fruit per day and 5 of vegetables; my kids eat more than 5 serves of vegetables at lunch alone, let alone dinner!

And even more disturbingly, rates of vegetable and fruit consumption went down and sugary beverage consumption went up as children got older, so at the very time when their academic attainment is most crucial to their future opportunities in life, kids’ eating habits are deteriorating.

Whereas half of children in Year 3 ate 2-3 pieces of fruit per day, by Year 9 only 40% of children did so. And conversely, while only 13.5% of Year 3 kids drank a sugar sweetened beverage daily, nearly a fifth of Year 9 kids did so.

What can parents do to help their children eat better?

#1: Teach them from the earliest age that what we eat affects our health, happiness and success in life. It’s usually not very easy to motivate kids to eat well for the sake of their health, unless they have a chronic condition such as asthma that is rapidly and noticeably impacted by diet. Certainly, bowel cancer and heart attacks are too far off in their future for them to even worry about!

But most kids want to do well in school, many are motivated to improve their performance in sport and athletics, none of them like feeling miserable, and all of them care about their appearance. Our food choices affect all these domains – see my articles Junk food makes kids dumber, Good mood food, Want to feel happier? Change what’s on your plate, Beat the holiday season blues – with broccoli and berries, and Beautifully Healthy for more information.

#2: Model healthy eating behaviours to them. Kids who grow up watching parents enjoy fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes are more likely to develop a preference for these foods too. If you are all on board with healthy eating but your partner isn’t, ask if he or she would be willing to eat healthfully in the home and save the junk food for when they’re out of the house… and not with the kids in tow. If kids see Mum eating broccoli at the dinner table while Dad eats ice cream and chips on the couch in front of the TV, guess which parent’s food they’ll want to try?

#3: If it’s not healthy, don’t bring it home. I’m always amazed when parents wring their hands while telling me that their kids won’t eat the fruit from the fruit bowl, but they’ll scarf down the chocolate biscuits from the pantry. I’m not amazed that the kids prefer the biscuits; I’m amazed that the parent thinks it could have gone any other way.

Parents are in total control of their child’s eating habits when they’re very young, and it’s at this age that taste preferences and notions about what constitutes appropriate food are set. If you want your child to be a healthy eater, don’t expose them to salty, sugary and/or fatty foods like crackers, cheese, bacon, ham, ice cream and biscuits at a young age – read my article Why are salt, sugar and fat so addictive? to learn more about the corrupting influence of these ubiquitous substances on our palates.

Read my Top 7 tips for getting children to eat healthy foods for more guidance.

Worried about your child’s eating habits? Apply today for a Roadmap to Optimal Health Consultation to develop a plan of action for a happy, healthy child who can perform at their best.

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