Researchers identify link between nutrition and mental health in children

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:

  • nutritional intake was associated with mental wellbeing scores in both primary and secondary school children
  • higher fruit and vegetable consumption was significantly associated with better mental wellbeing in secondary pupils
  • the type of breakfast and lunch consumed, by both primary and secondary pupils, was significantly associated with wellbeing
  • the difference in mental wellbeing between children who consumed the most fruits and vegetables compared with the lowest was of a similar scale to those children experiencing daily, or almost daily, arguing or violence at home

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:

  • Only around a quarter of secondary school children and 28% of primary school children reported eating the recommended five-a-day fruits and vegetables
  • Just under one in 10 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
  • More than one in 10 secondary-school children didn’t eat lunch

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.

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Image at the head of this article by stokpic from Pixabay.

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