Higher fruit and veg intake linked to better mental health in secondary schoolchildren

Higher fruit and veg intake linked to better mental health in secondary schoolchildren

Higher fruit and vegetable consumption has been associated to improved mental health in secondary school students.

Healthy breakfast and lunch are linked to emotional well-being in students of all ages.

Researchers advise including proper diet in public health policies for children's mental health.

According to study published in the online journal BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health, higher fruit and vegetable intake is linked to greater mental health in secondary schools, whereas a nutritious breakfast and lunch is linked to emotional wellbeing in students of all ages.

The findings lead the researchers to recommend that adequate nutrition be included in public health programmes to improve children's mental health.

Poor mental health is a serious issue for young people, and survey data shows that it is becoming more prevalent. According to the data, teen mental health issues frequently linger into adulthood, resulting in lower life outcomes and achievement.

It's unclear whether schoolchildren's nutritional choices are linked to their mental health. The researchers based their findings on responses to The Norfolk Children and Young People Health and Wellbeing Survey 2017 from over 50 schools in Norfolk, England.

In total, 10,853 Norfolk primary school children in the target year groups (9-11 years old), 22 percent of secondary school students, and roughly 6% of young adults in years 12 and 13 completed the survey on their mental health and nutrition (17-18 year olds).

Dietary questions probed fruit and vegetable consumption, as well as the sort of breakfast and lunch consumed; alcohol consumption; eligibility for free school meals; and weight satisfaction.

Background and general health information, as well as a variety of other characteristics, such as whether they had their own bedroom and bed, whether they felt safe at school and at home, and whether they had witnessed violence or arguing at home, were all obtained. Validated age-appropriate measures were used to assess mental health.

The final analysis includes data from 7570 secondary school students and 1253 primary school students. Secondary school students received an average mental health score of 46.6 out of 70, while elementary school students received a score of 46 out of 60.

Only about one-quarter of secondary school students (25%) and 28.5% of elementary school students reported eating the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, with 10% and 9%, respectively, eating none.

Around one-fifth of secondary school students (21%) and one-eighth of primary school students (12%) ate only a non-energy drink or nothing at all for breakfast, while one-fifth of secondary school students (11.5%) ate no lunch.

Higher intake of mixed fruits and vegetables was linked to better mental health; the higher the intake, the better the score.

When compared to secondary school students who did not eat any fruit or vegetables, eating one or two daily servings was linked to a 1.42-unit increase, while eating three or four parts was linked to a 2.34-unit increase. A score of 3.73 units higher was connected with eating 5 or more pieces.

The type of breakfast has a major impact on mental health. Eating merely a snack or breakfast bar was connected with a 1.15 unit lower score than eating a traditional breakfast such as toast, oatmeal, cereal, yoghurt, fruit, or a cooked breakfast.

Energy drink consumption as a breakfast alternative was linked to very low mental health scores, which were lower than those of children who did not have any breakfast at all.

A score of 3.14 units lower was related with drinking only an energy drink, while a score of 2.73 units lower was connected with not eating any breakfast at all.

Similarly, the type of lunch had a substantial impact on mental health scores. When compared to eating a packed lunch, not eating any lunch resulted in a score of 2.95 units lower.

Among primary school students, eating only a snack for breakfast was linked to a 5.50-unit lower score, while drinking only a non-energy drink was linked to a 2.67-unit worse score than those who ate a traditional breakfast. A score of 3.62 units lower was connected with not eating any breakfast.

Moreover, as compared to a packed lunch, eating school food was related with a score 1.27 units lower, though this was not statistically significant; having no lunch was associated with a score 6.08 units lower, however the researchers caution that there were only a few children in this group.

This is an observational study, which means it can't prove causality. Additionally, the survey data didn't include precise dietary information, and the study depended on children's subjective assessments.

“The relevance of good quality diet for childhood growth and development is well established,” the researchers write. Our findings add to the growing body of data indicating nutrition has a significant impact on children's mental health.

They point out that the gap in mental wellness between children who ate the most fruits and vegetables and those who ate the least was on a par with children who reported daily, or nearly daily, arguing or violence at home.

“Nutrition may thus represent a significant public health target for programmes to address childhood mental wellness as a potentially modifiable component, both at an individual and societal level.”

Sumantra Ray, executive director of the NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health, says, "This study gives the first insights into how fruit and vegetable intake influences children's mental health, and contributes to the increasing evidence around 'food and mood.'"

“The findings are timely, not only because of the pandemic's impact on mental health, food security, and nutrition quality, particularly among schoolchildren, but also because the National Food Strategy for England, which revealed inadequacies in school lunch provision, was recently published.”

“This study should assist to motivate more research on nutrition and mental health, as well as improve public health policy,” he concludes.