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health as it happens

Kids who eat more fruits, vegetables have better mental health - Study Finds

New research reveals that one in 10 children consume no produce on a regular basis at all, which can impact mental well-being more than family problems at home.

NORFOLK, England — Children who eat more fruits and vegetables tend to have sharper minds, according to new research. In a recent study, kids who consumed the recommended five or more portions of fruits and vegetables a day had the highest mental well-being scores.

The study is the first to investigate the association between fruit and vegetable intake, breakfast and lunch choices, and mental well-being in British school children. However, the study also finds that almost 10% of kids eat no fruits or vegetables at all!

“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,” says says lead researcher Ailsa Welch of the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School, in a statement. “So, we set out to investigate the association between dietary choices and mental wellbeing among schoolchildren.”

Researchers studied data from more than 8,500 children at 50 schools in England. They say that the types of breakfast and lunch eaten by both primary and secondary school students 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.

Data also shows that nutrition had as much or more of an impact on wellbeing as factors such as witnessing regular arguing or violence at home. According to the team, 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 optimize mental well-being and empower children to fulfill their full potential.

“We know that poor mental well-being is a major issue for young people and is likely to have long-term negative consequences,” says Welch. “ 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.”

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.

“In terms of nutrition, we found that only around a quarter of secondary-school children and 28% 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,” says Welch.

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. “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,” explains co-author Dr. Richard Hayhoe, also of UEA’s Norwich Medical School.

“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,” Hayhoe continues. “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.”

The findings are published in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health .

South West News Service Stephen Beech contributed to this report.