British Journal of Nutrition

Systematic Review

A systematic review of the effect of dietary exposure that could be achieved through normal dietary intake on learning and performance of school-aged children of relevance to UK schools

Louisa J. Ellsa1, Frances C. Hilliera1, Janet Shucksmitha1, Helen Crawleya2, Laurence Harbigea3, Julian Shielda4, Andy Wigginsa5 and Carolyn D. Summerbella1 c1

a1 Centre for Food, Physical Activity and Obesity Research, School for Health and Social Care, University of Teesside, Middlesbrough TS1 3BA, UK

a2 University of Kingston, Penryn Road, Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey KY1 2EE, UK

a3 University of Greenwich at Medway, Chatham Maritime, Kent ME4 4TB, UK

a4 University of Bristol, Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, Upper Maudlin Street, Bristol BS2 8AE, UK

a5 The CEM Centre, Mountjoy Research Centre 4, Durham University, Stockton Road, Durham DH1 3UZ, UK


The aim of the present review was to perform a systematic in-depth review of the best evidence from controlled trial studies that have investigated the effects of nutrition, diet and dietary change on learning, education and performance in school-aged children (4–18 years) from the UK and other developed countries. The twenty-nine studies identified for the review examined the effects of breakfast consumption, sugar intake, fish oil and vitamin supplementation and ‘good diets’. In summary, the studies included in the present review suggest there is insufficient evidence to identify any effect of nutrition, diet and dietary change on learning, education or performance of school-aged children from the developed world. However, there is emerging evidence for the effects of certain fatty acids which appear to be a function of dose and time. Further research is required in settings of relevance to the UK and must be of high quality, representative of all populations, undertaken for longer durations and use universal validated measures of educational attainment. However, challenges in terms of interpreting the results of such studies within the context of factors such as family and community context, poverty, disease and the rate of individual maturation and neurodevelopment will remain. Whilst the importance of diet in educational attainment remains under investigation, the evidence for promotion of lower-fat, -salt and -sugar diets, high in fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates, as well as promotion of physical activity remains unequivocal in terms of health outcomes for all schoolchildren.

(Received October 27 2006)

(Revised January 29 2008)

(Accepted January 30 2008)

(Online publication April 01 2008)


c1 Corresponding author: Professor Carolyn Summerbell, fax +44 1642 342770, email


Abbreviations: AA, arachidonic acid; ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; EPPI, Evidence for Policy and Practice Information; GLA, γ-linolenic acid; IQ, intelligence quotient; RCT, randomised controlled trial; SIGN, Scottish Intercollegiate Guidance Network