Health & Fitness

How diet determines child mental health

Food1-online

Summary

  • Based on the findings of the study, the research team notes that public health strategies and school policies should be developed to ensure that good quality nutrition.
  • Many studies have linked pressures of social media and modern school culture as potential reasons for the rising prevalence of low mental well-being in children and young people.

As children approach adolescence and teenage, many struggle with mental health challenges driven by factors such as a desire for greater autonomy, pressure to conform with peers, as well as increased access to and use of technology, especially social media.

Mercy, a parent of a 14-year-old boy in secondary school, is among the many that grapple with this challenge in Kenya.

"My son used to perform well in school. But his grades started dropping about two years ago. He went through bullying that affected his self-esteem and pushed him to become a people's pleaser. And this causes him so much stress because he ends up doing what he's not comfortable with," she says.

FRUIT, VEGETABLE

To address this challenge, Mercy sought the assistance of a psychologist that is helping her son to tackle the problems and regain his confidence.

Aside from these psychological or emotional challenges that predispose children to mental health problems as they grow up, research also shows that the physical health status of children — linked to their nutrition — should also be considered.

A new study published in the BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health Journal indicates that children whose diets packed with fruit and vegetables have better mental well-being.

The research, which was conducted by a team from the University of East Anglia (UEA), is the first to investigate the association between fruit and vegetable intakes, as well as breakfast and lunch choices on the mental health of school children.

Based on the findings of the study, the research team notes that public health strategies and school policies should be developed to ensure that good quality nutrition is available to all children — before and during school — so as to optimise mental well-being and empower children to fulfil their full potential.

Dr Ailsa Welch, the lead author of the study and professor from UEA’s Norwich Medical School noted that poor mental well-being is a major issue for young people and is likely to have long-term negative consequences.

He noted that addressing the challenge in early life is of utmost importance because adolescent mental health problems often persist into adulthood, leading to poorer life outcomes and achievement.

FIVE PORTIONS

Many studies have linked pressures of social media and modern school culture as potential reasons for the rising prevalence of low mental well-being in children and young people.

But in this new study, the researchers sought to investigate the link between the food consumed by children and their mental health.

“While the links between nutrition and physical health are well understood, until now, not much has been known about whether nutrition plays a part in children’s emotional well-being,” stated Prof Welch.

“So, we set out to investigate the association between dietary choices and mental well-being among school children.”

During the study, the research team analysed data from almost 9,000 children in 50 schools across Norfolk County in the UK.

Children involved in the study self-reported their dietary choices and took part in age-appropriate tests of mental well-being that covered cheerfulness, relaxation and having good interpersonal relationships.

At the end of the study, the results revealed that children who consumed five or more portions of fruit and vegetable a day had the highest scores for mental well-being.

“We found that eating well was associated with better mental well-being in children,” noted Richard Hayhoe, also from UEA’s Norwich Medical School.

“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 well-being,” noted Dr Hayhoe.

TRADITIONAL BREAKFAST

“We also found that the types of breakfast and lunch eaten by both primary and secondary school pupils were also significantly associated with well-being. Those who ate a traditional breakfast experienced better well-being than those who only had a snack or drink.”

The researchers note that, surprisingly, the study showed that nutrition had as much or more of an impact on the well-being of children, just as other grave factors like witnessing regular arguing or violence at home.

“As a potentially modifiable factor at an individual and societal level, nutrition represents an important public health target for strategies to address childhood mental well-being,” noted Prof Welch.