Children who eat fruit and vegetables have better mental health, study finds

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AUTHOR: Stef Bottinelli

A study by the University of East Anglia and Social Care Partners has found a link between children’s dietary habits and their mental health.

The research, commissioned by the Public Health department of Norfolk County Council and the Norfolk Safeguarding Children Board, found that secondary school pupils who regularly eat more fruit and vegetables enjoy better wellbeing, and children who ate their five a day or more, were more likely to have better mental health.

The research team studied datataken from the Norfolk children and Young People’s Health and Wellbeing Survey and collated from almost 9,000 children in 50 schools across Norfolk (7,570 secondary and 1,253 primary school children).

Young participants self-reported their dietary habits and choices and took part in age-appropriate tests of mental wellbeing that looked at cheerfulness, relaxation, and having good interpersonal relationships.
The University of East Anglia team looked at the link between the children’s nutrition and mental wellbeing and also took into account factors that might have an impact on mental health and quality of life – such as negative childhood experiences and home situations.

UEA’s Norwich Medical School study lead researcher Prof Ailsa Welch, 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 study found that a considerable number of children doesn’t consume enough fruit and vegetables an a few reported skipping meals.

Prof Welch said: “In terms of nutrition, we found that only around a quarter of secondary-school children and 28 per cent of primary-school children reported eating the recommended five-a-day fruits and vegetables. And just under one in ten children were not eating any fruits or vegetables.

“More than one in five secondary school children and one in 10 primary children didn’t eat breakfast. And more than one in 10 secondary school children didn’t eat lunch.”

Dr Richard Hayhoe, also 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.

“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 wellbeing as factors such as witnessing regular arguing or violence at home.”

The research team believes that public health strategies and school policies should be in place to ensure that a good level of nutrition is available to all children before and during school to promote mental wellbeing.

“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.”, said Professor Welch.

“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.”

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