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‘Strong link’ found between food choices and children’s mental health

A ground-breaking study has found that poor nutrition can have the same impact on a child’s mental wellbeing as witnessing regular arguing at home.

In the first study to look at the link between consuming fruit and vegetables, breakfast and lunch choices, and mental wellbeing in schoolchildren, researchers found a ‘strong link’.

Data from almost 9,000 children in 50 schools was analysed by a team from the University of East Anglia.

Their key findings included how for secondary school students in particular, eating healthily is associated with better mental health. They also highlighted how children who ate their five a day or more had better wellbeing scores.

Now the team is calling for nutrition to be top of the agenda when it comes to developing school policies and public health strategies for children, to enable them to reach their full potential.

Lead researcher Professor Ailsa Welch, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said while the benefits of nutrition on physical health are well known, less was understood about the impact of dietary choices on mental wellbeing.

She said: “We know that poor mental wellbeing is a major issue for young people and is likely to 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.

“And there is a growing recognition of the importance of mental health and wellbeing in early life – not least because adolescent mental health problems often persist into adulthood, leading to poorer life outcomes and achievement.”

The study, which was led by UEA Health and Social Care Partners in collaboration with Norfolk County Council, saw children reporting their dietary choices and taking tests around the themes of cheerfulness, relaxation, and having good interpersonal relationships.

The researchers also considered other factors that could affect a child’s wellbeing, including childhood experiences and home situations.

Around 25 per cent of secondary school students and 28 per cent of primary school children said they ate the recommended five-a-day fruits and vegetables. Just under one in ten children were not eating any fruits or vegetables.

In addition, 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.

Dr Richard Hayhoe, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We found that eating well was associated with better mental wellbeing in children.

“We also found that the types of breakfast and lunch eaten by both primary and secondary school pupils were also significantly associated with wellbeing.

“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.

“Another interesting thing that we found was that nutrition had as much or more of an impact on wellbeing as factors such as witnessing regular arguing or violence at home.”

The study has been published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health.

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