Mental health better in children who eat more fruit and vegetables, according to new research based on pupils from across Norfolk
Children who eat more fruit and veg have better mental health, according to new research.
The one in four youngsters who ate the recommended five or more portions of fruit and veg a day had the highest mental well-being scores.
The study, based on children across Norfolk, is the first to investigate the association between fruit and vegetable intake, breakfast and lunch choices, and mental well-being in British school children.
But just under one in 10 kids ate no fruit or veg at all, according to the findings published in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health.
The research team studied data from more than 8,500 children at 50 schools in Norfolk.
They found that the types of breakfast and lunch eaten by both primary and secondary school pupils were "significantly associated" with well-being.
Children who ate a traditional breakfast experienced better well-being than those who only had a snack or drink.
But secondary school pupils who drank energy drinks for breakfast had particularly low mental well-being scores, even lower than for those children who ate 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.
They say that public health strategies and school policies should be developed to ensure that good quality nutrition is available to all pupils before and during school to optimise mental wellbeing and empower children to fulfil their full potential.
Lead researcher Professor Ailsa Welch, of the University of East Anglia (UEA), said: “We know that poor mental well-being 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 well-being in children and young people.
“And there is a growing recognition of the importance of mental health and well-being 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 well-being.
"So, we set out to investigate the association between dietary choices and mental well-being among schoolchildren.”
Children involved in the study self-reported what they ate and took part in age-appropriate mental well-being tests that covered cheerfulness, relaxation, and having good interpersonal relationships.
The team looked at the association between nutritional factors and mental well-being and took into account other factors that might have an impact – such as adverse childhood experiences and home situations.
Dr Richard Hayhoe, also of UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We found that eating well was associated with better mental well-being in children.
"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 well-being.
“We also found that the types of breakfast and lunch eaten by both primary and secondary school pupils were also significantly associated with well-being.
“According to our data, in a class of 30 secondary school pupils, around 21 will have consumed a conventional-type breakfast, and at least four will have had nothing to eat or drink before starting classes in the morning.
“Similarly, at least three pupils will go into afternoon classes without eating any lunch. This is of concern, and likely to affect not only academic performance at school but also physical growth and development.
“Another interesting thing that we found was that nutrition had as much or more of an impact on well-being as factors such as witnessing regular arguing or violence at home."
Prof Welch added: “As a potentially modifiable factor at an individual and societal level, nutrition represents an important public health target for strategies to address childhood mental wellbeing.
“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 well-being and empower children to fulfil their full potential.”