It is universally accepted that eating our five a day can do wonders for our physical health. However, the links between diet and mental wellbeing, particularly in children, are not so well understood. A new study from the University of East Anglia has found that secondary school children who eat a larger number of fruit and vegetables tend to have better mental health scores.
Published in the journal BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health, the study also found that eating a nutritious breakfast and lunch is associated with improved emotional wellbeing in children of both primary and secondary school age, and that poor nutrition had as much (if not more) of an impact on wellbeing as witnessing regular arguing or violence.
Survey data was collected from almost 9,000 children at 50 schools across Norfolk, UK. Of the students selected, 7,570 were at secondary school and 1,253 at primary school. Each was asked to self-report their dietary choices and were then subjected to age-appropriate tests of mental wellbeing.
Mental wellbeing increased with fruit and veg intake; eating just one or two daily portions lead to a score 1.42 units higher than those who ate none, while eating all five recommended portions was associated with a score 3.73 units higher.
“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,” said Dr Richard Hayhoe, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, in a statement.
Concerningly, only around a quarter of secondary school pupils and 28.5 percent of primary school pupils reported eating five portions of fruit and veg a day, while 10 percent and 9 percent, respectively, said they ate none.
Breakfast type was also found to have a particularly prominent impact on mental health: “Children who ate a traditional breakfast experienced better wellbeing than those who only had a snack or drink,” Hayhoe continued. “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.”
A similar number of students will attend afternoon classes without having eaten lunch, which Hayhoe said could impact academic performance as well as physical growth and development.
The researchers call for these findings to influence future public health strategies, which urgently need to address childhood mental wellbeing. According to The Children’s Society, one in six children aged five to 16 in the UK are likely to struggle with their mental health, a number which has increased by 50 percent in the last three years.