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Special thanks to the WH Foods for this article!

Studies have found that almost twice as many high school graduates report that they are healthy and in good health compared to non-graduates. As a parent and great supporter of our educational system, you may find the correlation between healthy eating and students’ success in school of particular interest.

While many people might question the importance of diet as a key factor in school success, the research here is clear. Studies have correlated academic success and high-level performance with a healthy diet; without such a diet, it is unreasonable to expect high-level school outcomes. This is of utmost importance because, currently, half of all high school students drop out before graduation. And, with respect to the rest of the world, we come in 24th in science and 25th in mathematical competency.

Our children’s doing well in school is a top priority not only for the students themselves, but their parents and the teachers who teach them. It has also become a top priority for many communities and countries as a whole since excellence in education is so important for solving global problems that face today’s generation, as well as generations to come. The list of key factors that influence school success is a long one that includes not only a child’s economic status, school and home environment, self-esteem, and access to good teachers and role models who can inspire a love of learning, but also their nutritional status, which is dependent upon what foods the child is given!

No area of diet and school performance is better studied than breakfast. Studies have repeatedly shown that a good breakfast improves academic performance. For example, in a study of students in the Boston Public School System, participants who rarely ate breakfast (and that was over 60% of all participants!) had a 40% greater risk of doing poorly in math and reading. Their math and reading scores were about 25% lower than the scores of students who regularly ate breakfast, and their Grade Point Averages were also about 25% lower. Students who skip breakfast have also been shown to have more days absent from school and more days being tardy.

Research in the area of breakfast goes a step further. It shows that it’s not just breakfast that counts, but the nutritional adequacy of breakfast. Calories are important, but so are slowly digesting foods rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The worst cost of sugary, refined cereals or breakfast bars is that these products will spike the child’s blood sugar leaving him or her restless and hungry within little more than an hour.

Students are required to perform a wide variety of mental tasks in school, and there’s good evidence to show that high-level performance of these tasks takes a nourishing diet. For example, school performance has been found to suffer if a student’s intake of RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) nutrients falls below a minimum level. Researchers have found that it’s important to get at least 50% of the RDA level for all RDA nutrients if school performance is to be maintained at the normal level. If students meet less than 50% of the RDA intake goals for as few as two nutrients, their school performance has been found to suffer.

Similarly, in a study exploring literacy test performance in 5th graders in Nova Scotia, Canada, students whose overall diet quality ranked in the top third of the class were about 40% less likely to fail on at least one component of the test. In fact, in terms of overall diet quality, even students in the middle third were 25% less likely to fail than students in the bottom third. Also striking was the connection between fruit and vegetable intake and literacy. Even though many individual aspects of the diet were studied, including intake of other foods like grains, as well as intake of foods rich in nutrients like vitamin C or calcium, only fruit and vegetable intake showed up as being a significant factor for lowering risk of failure on components of the literacy test.

Fat quality is another aspect of diet that seems critical. Students ages 6 to 16 turn out to have significantly poorer reading performance and poorer short-term and working memory when their diet contains too much saturated and too little polyunsaturated fat. The types of testing studied have included digit span testing, where students have been asked to repeat-both backwards and forwards-a series of numbers that increase in length as the test goes on. (This approach is part of a very widely used test called the WISC-R, or Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Revised.)

Doing well in school also means having good vision, good hearing, and an ability to concentrate and think clearly. Without adequate nutritional support of the nervous system and brain, and without a good balance in overall metabolism, school success becomes less likely.

One balance that seems especially important for cognitive performance is blood sugar balance. Several studies have shown poorer performance on cognitive tests (like recalling a long list of words) in individuals with poor blood sugar control (called glycemic control). And there is some evidence that intake of sugar-laden foods or high glycemic index (high-GI) foods is associated with impairment of short-term memory.

Whether it’s vegetable and fruit consumption, adequate polyunsaturated fat intake, provision of vitamins and minerals at the RDA level or emphasis on low-GI foods and healthy blood sugar control, nutrient-rich foods are perfectly matched with the science of school success. Focusing on nutrient-rich health-promoting foods that support body systems and metabolic balance, as well as focusing on helping students eat less nutrient-poor refined foods, is 100% in accord with the research that consistently reports that a diet, which provides proper nourishment, can be a key factor in school success. An organized eating plan that includes a nourishing breakfast will also pay dividends with school performance, let alone overall health and wellness.

Many people believe that some students are going to do well, others are not, and there’s really nothing anyone can do about it. The research shows otherwise, and it shows that diet can make a real difference for students and their school success!