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Healthy diet linked to child mental health

Tuesday September 28th 2021

Children who have a healthy diet, with plenty of fruit and vegetables, may benefit from improved mental wellbeing, a new study has shown.

Research from the University of East Anglia, which is published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, is the first to investigate the association between fruit and vegetable intake, breakfast and lunch choices, and mental wellbeing in UK school children.

The study, led by UEA Health and Social Care Partners with Norfolk County Council, found that children who ate five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day had the highest scores for mental wellbeing.

Lead researcher Professor Ailsa Welch, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We know that poor mental wellbeing is a major issue for young people and is likely to have long-term negative consequences.

“The pressures of social media and modern school culture have been touted as potential reasons for a rising prevalence of low mental wellbeing in children and young people.

“And there is a growing recognition of the importance of mental health and wellbeing in early life – not least because adolescent mental health problems often persist into adulthood, leading to poorer life outcomes and achievement.

“While the links between nutrition and physical health are well understood, until now, not much has been known about whether nutrition plays a part in children’s emotional wellbeing. So, we set out to investigate the association between dietary choices and mental wellbeing among schoolchildren.”

The research team studied data from 7,570 secondary and 1,253 primary school children in 50 schools in Norfolk, taken from the Norfolk children and Young People’s Health and Wellbeing Survey, which was open to all schools in the county during October 2017.

Children self-reported their dietary choices and took part in age-appropriate tests of mental wellbeing that covered cheerfulness, relaxation, and having good interpersonal relationships.

The researchers found about a quarter of secondary-school children and 28% of primary-school children reported eating the recommended five portions of fruits and vegetables a day.

Just under one in 10 children did not eat any fruits or vegetables, more than one in five secondary school children and one in 10 primary children had no breakfast, while more than one in 10 secondary school children did not eat lunch.

The average mental health score was 46.6 out of 70 for secondary school pupils and 46 out of 60 for primary school pupils.

Traditional breakfast

Compared with secondary school pupils eating no fruit or vegetables, eating one or two daily portions was associated with a score 1.42 units higher, while eating three or four portions was associated with a score 2.34 units higher. Eating five or more portions was associated with a score 3.73 units higher.

Breakfast type was also significantly associated with mental wellbeing. Compared with a conventional breakfast, such as toast, porridge, cereal, yoghurt, fruit, or a cooked breakfast, eating only a snack or breakfast bar was associated with a score that was 1.15 units lower.

Dr Richard Hayhoe, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We found that eating well was associated with better mental wellbeing in children. And that among secondary school children in particular, there was a really strong link between eating a nutritious diet, packed with fruit and vegetables, and having better mental wellbeing.

“We also found that the types of breakfast and lunch eaten by both primary and secondary school pupils were also significantly associated with wellbeing.

“Children who ate a traditional breakfast experienced better wellbeing than those who only had a snack or drink. But secondary school children who drank energy drinks for breakfast had particularly low mental wellbeing scores, even lower than for those children consuming no breakfast at all.”

The team also found that nutrition had as much or more of an impact on wellbeing as factors such as witnessing regular arguing or violence at home.

Prof Welch added: “Public health strategies and school policies should be developed to ensure that good quality nutrition is available to all children both before and during school in order to optimise mental wellbeing and empower children to fulfil their full potential.”

Hayhoe R, Rechel B, Clark A et al. Cross-sectional associations of schoolchildren's fruit and vegetable consumption, and meal choices, with their mental wellbeing: a cross-sectional study. BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health 28 September 2021

[abstract]

Tags: Child Health | Diet & Food | Mental Health | UK News

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