Differences in the effects of school meals on children's cognitive performance according to gender, household education and baseline reading skills

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Abstract

BACKGROUND/OBJECTIVES:

We previously found that the OPUS School Meal Study improved reading and increased errors related to inattention and impulsivity. This study explored whether the cognitive effects differed according to gender, household education and reading proficiency at baseline.

SUBJECTS/METHODS:

This is a cluster-randomised cross-over trial comparing Nordic school meals with packed lunch from home (control) for 3 months each among 834 children aged 8 to 11 years. At baseline and at the end of each dietary period, we assessed children's performance in reading, mathematics and the d2-test of attention. Interactions were evaluated using mixed models. Analyses included 739 children.

RESULTS:

At baseline, boys and children from households without academic education were poorer readers and had a higher d2-error%. Effects on dietary intake were similar in subgroups. However, the effect of the intervention on test outcomes was stronger in boys, in children from households with academic education and in children with normal/good baseline reading proficiency. Overall, this resulted in increased socioeconomic inequality in reading performance and reduced inequality in impulsivity. Contrary to this, the gender difference decreased in reading and increased in impulsivity. Finally, the gap between poor and normal/good readers was increased in reading and decreased for d2-error%.

CONCLUSIONS:

The effects of healthy school meals on reading, impulsivity and inattention were modified by gender, household education and baseline reading proficiency. The differential effects might be related to environmental aspects of the intervention and deserves to be investigated further in future school meal trials.

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