Here’s what we know already: (i) there is a link between nutrition and physical health (ii) nutrition is particularly important for children’s growth and development (iii) many children do not have a good diet (iv) there is a growing crisis in children’s mental health. Here’s what new: researchers have now identified a link between children’s nutritional intake and mental health. In simple terms, children who eat five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day have the best mental health. These research findings have important implications for any strategy to improve children’s mental health in both the immediate and the long term.
The research has been published in the journal BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health. Its key findings were that:
Prof Ailsa Welch, the study’s lead researcher, is clear about the implications of the findings for public policy:
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.Prof Ailsa Welch, University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School, quoted in The Guardian
The research team analysed data from almost 9,000 children in 50 primary and secondary schools across Norfolk taken from the Norfolk children and young people’s health and wellbeing survey. Some of their findings (as reported in the Guardian) make depressing reading:
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.Dr Richard Hayhoe, UEA’s Norwich Medical School, also quoted in The Guardian
We recently highlighted the stark conclusion of the National Food Strategy, an independent report commissioned in 2019 by the UK government: “Children’s diets are not good enough.” One of the strategy’s key objectives was to identify ways to escape what it called “the junk-food cycle”. Another was to transform our food culture. Henry Dimbleby, the strategy’s author, connected children’s diet with health in later life. This new report highlights the importance of good nutrition for children’s wellbeing in the here and now.
We also highlighted the findings of a recent Children’s Society report into young people’s mental health, which spoke of “an alarming state of decline” and warned of a trend that stretched back a decade and had been exacerbated by the impact of the Covid pandemic.
Life-Based Learning (LBL) is predicated on the idea that we must put children at the heart of long-term strategies that aim to tackle the immense challenges of the coming decades. Diet is one such challenge. Mental health is another. The Body is one of LBL’s learning themes, promoting the role of sport, regular physical activity and diet and nutrition in improving physical health. The Emotions, meanwhile, focuses on the issue of mental health and wellbeing. Children need to be learning from a young age about their emotions and how to manage them, helping them to grow up happy and emotionally resilient. What this important report makes clear is the importance of nutrition in helping children to manage their emotions.
Image at the head of this article by stokpic from Pixabay.