Lead researcher Prof Ailsa Welch, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, 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. 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 wellbeing. So, we set out to investigate the association between dietary choices and mental wellbeing among schoolchildren.”
The research team studied data from 8,823 students in 50 schools across Norfolk, taken from the Norfolk Children and Young People’s Health and Wellbeing Survey, which was open to all Norfolk schools during October 2017. Children self-reported their dietary choices and took part in age-appropriate tests of mental wellbeing that covered cheerfulness, relaxation, and having good interpersonal relationships.”
Welch noted that only around a quarter of secondary-school children and 28% of primary-school children reported eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, and just under one in ten children were not eating any fruits or vegetables. More than one in five secondary school children and one in 10 primary school children didn’t eat breakfast, and more than one in 10 secondary school children didn’t eat lunch.
The team took into account other factors that may have had an impact, including adverse childhood experiences and home situations.
Dr. Richard Hayhoe, also from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “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. 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.”
According to the survey data, Dr. Hayhoe pointed out, in a class of 30 secondary school pupils, at least four will have had nothing to eat or drink before starting school in the morning, and at least three will go to afternoon classes without eating lunch.
“Another interesting thing that we found,” Dr. Hayhoe noted, “was that nutrition had as much or more of an impact on wellbeing as factors such as witnessing regular arguing or violence at home.”
Welch concluded: “As a potentially modifiable factor at an individual and societal level, nutrition represents an important public health target for strategies to address childhood mental wellbeing. Public health strategies and school policies should be developed to ensure that good quality nutrition is available to all children both before and during school in order to optimize mental wellbeing and empower children to fulfill their full potential.”