More Fruits and Vegetables Mean Better Mental Health

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While research supports kids eating a nutritious diet to reduce risks of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, new research also supports it for their mental health.

In addition to being delicious, a recent study has discovered that kids that eat more fruits and vegetables have better mental health. The study done by the University of East Anglia was conducted in 9,000 children in 50 schools in the UK.

Food choices made at breakfast and lunch were linked with better wellbeing. Children who ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day had the highest scores in mental wellbeing, particularly children in secondary school.

The researchers advise that public health strategies and school policies should be created to be sure nutritious food is accessible to all children prior to and during school to improve mental health and allow kids to live to their full potential.

According to lead researcher Professor Alisa Welch, poor mental health is a big issue for young people that can 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.”
She notes there is growing evidence of the importance of mental wellbeing in early life particularly since teenage mental health issues can continue into adulthood, resulting in disadvantages in later life.

The connections between nutrition and physical health are well known, there hasn’t been as much research about the role of nutrition in children’s emotional health. Data was reviewed from nearly 9,000 students in 50 schools across Norfolk taken from the Norfolk children and Young People’s Health and wellbeing Survey, which was commissioned by the Public Health department of Norfolk County Council and the Norfolk Safeguarding Children Board. It was available to all Norfolk schools during October 2017.

Subjects self-reported their food choices in the study and participated in age-appropriate tests of mental wellbeing that included cheerfulness, relaxation and having healthy interpersonal relationships.
Results of the study showed that roughly 25% of secondary-school children and 28% of primary-school kids reported eating adequate fruits and vegetables each day (minimum of 5 servings daily).

Just below 1 in 10 kids weren’t consuming any fruit or vegetables. Over one in five secondary-school kids and one in ten primary children skipped breakfast and over one in ten secondary children skipped lunch.

Researchers evaluated the link between diet and mental health and reviewed confounding factors that could have an impact- such as home life and adverse childhood events. They discovered that eating well was linked with better emotional wellbeing in children. In secondary-school children, a very strong association between a nutritious diet high in fruits and vegetables and better mental health was observed.

Types of breakfast and lunch foods consumed also made a difference. Traditional foods eaten at breakfast were linked with better wellbeing while those consuming energy drinks at breakfast had low mental wellbeing scores. These were lower than children that had nothing for breakfast.

Nutrition also had an impact on family relationships such as witnessing regular arguing or violence at home. Professor Welch sees nutrition as a “modifiable factor at an individual and societal level” to address childhood mental wellbeing at a public health level.

Good quality food should be available to all children before and during school to provide opportunities for optimal mental health.

Below is a simple, affordable recipe that kids can make themselves for breakfast:

Berry yogurt parfait:
1/2 cup Greek vanilla yogurt
1/2 cup fresh or frozen berries of choice
¼ cup granola, chopped almonds or sunflower seeds
1. In a clear 12 oz. glass or cup, add ¼ cup yogurt, then ¼ cup berries.
2. Add 2 Tbsp. granola over the berries then repeat the layer of yogurt, berries and granola.

Makes 1 parfait. Recipe may be doubled or tripled for multiple servings.

Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD

1. Richard Hayhoe, Boika Rechel, Allan B Clark, Claire Gummerson, S J Louise Smith, Ailsa A Welch. Cross-sectional associations of schoolchildren’s fruit and vegetable consumption, and meal choices, with their mental well-being: a cross-sectional study. BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, 2021; e000205 DOI: 10.1136/bmjnph-2020-000205

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