Medical Technology

Nutritious meals can boost children’s Mental and Emotional Health

Good nutrition has long been linked to better behavior and academic performance in schoolchildren, as longstanding breakfast and lunch programs in U.S. schools attest. Now British researchers report that nutrition, a modifiable risk factor that can adversely impact mental health, should be part of public health strategies to boost children’s psychological wellness.

In a cross-sectional study published online Sept. 27 in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, a team from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, found a nutritious breakfast and lunch were linked to emotional well-being in schoolchildren of both primary and secondary school age. They also found that some school kids ate neither breakfast nor lunch.

In particular, eating more fruits and vegetables was significantly associated with better mental health in secondary schoolchildren, while a nutritious breakfast and lunch were linked to emotional well-being in students across the age spectrum, according to senior lecturer Richard P. Hayhoe, PhD, of East Anglia University and Anglia Ruskin University in Norwich and colleagues.

They found that primary school pupils who ate only a snack for breakfast had mental well-being scores 5.50 units lower than those eating a substantial breakfast, while having no lunch was tied to scores more than 6 units lower.

“The importance of good-quality nutrition for childhood growth and development is well established,” the authors wrote. “As a potentially modifiable factor, both at an individual and societal level, nutrition may therefore represent an important public health target for strategies to address childhood mental well-being.”

Their current analysis examined data on 7,570 secondary and 1,253 primary school children from 50 schools participating in the Norfolk Children and Young People Health and Well-being Survey 2017.

Multivariable linear regression measured the association between nutritional factors and mental well-being assessed by the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale for secondary school pupils or by the Stirling Children’s Well-being Scale for primary school pupils. All analyses were adjusted for covariates including demographic, health variables, living/home situations, and adverse experiences.

“The 2017 survey provided a means for Norfolk children and young people to share their feelings on topics such as healthy lifestyles and nutrition, relationships, school experiences, bullying, and their mental well-being,” Hayhoe said in an interview. “Initial analysis of the data suggested an association between nutrition and well-being and so we decided to investigate this further.”

Hayhoe added that, as in the United States, youngsters in England get a high proportion of their daily calories from ultraprocessed convenience foods of lesser nutritional value.

“But what we didn’t know was whether the dietary habits of children in our survey had any association with their mental well-being,” he said. “Our current findings suggest that increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and ensuring all schoolchildren eat a nutritional breakfast and lunch may be of benefit to their mental well-being.”

His group cautions, however, that this is an observational study that cannot establish direct causation.

“This study provides the first insights into how fruit and vegetable intake affects children’s mental health, and contributes to the emerging evidence around ‘food and mood,’ ” said Sumantra Ray, MD, executive director of the NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health in Cambridge, England.

“The findings are timely, not only because of the impact the pandemic has had on mental well-being, food security, and diet quality, especially in school children, but also in light of the recently published National Food Strategy for England, which highlighted gaps in school meal provision,” added Ray, who was not involved in the study.

Study Results

In total, 10,853 schoolchildren completed the survey: 9% of Norfolk primary school children aged 9-11 and 22% of secondary school students, with approximately 6% of these in the 17- and 18-year-old age bracket. Comprehensive dietary questions explored fruit and vegetable intake, as well as type of breakfast and lunch eaten, alcohol intake, eligibility for free school meals, and satisfaction with weight.

The survey also gathered information on parameters ranging from having one’s own bedroom and bed and exposure to violence or discord in the home.

“Some of these were found to be associated with lower mental well-being scores, but we did not specifically investigate the interaction between these factors and the nutritional factors,” Hayhoe said. However, the difference in mental well-being between children who ate the most fruit and vegetables and those who ate the least was on a similar scale to those reporting daily, or almost daily, arguing or violence at home, he said.

Average mental health was assessed using validated age-appropriate measures. The mean mental health score of participants was 46.6 out of 70 for secondary school students and 46 out of 60 for primary school pupils.

Among the survey findings were:

  • Just 25% of secondary school participants and 28.5% of primary school pupils reported eating the recommended five portions of fruits and vegetables a day, with 10% and 9%, respectively, eating none.

  • 21% of secondary and 12% of primary school pupils consumed only a non–energy drink or nothing for breakfast, while 11.5% of secondary schoolchildren ate no lunch. In one high school class of 30, for example, four had nothing to eat or drink before starting classes in the morning, and three had nothing to eat or drink before starting classes in the afternoon.

  • Higher combined fruit and vegetable intake was significantly associated in dose-related fashion with higher mental health scores: 3.73 (95% confidence interval, 2.94- 4.53) units higher in those consuming five or more fruits and vegetables (P < .001), compared with none.

  • Breakfast or lunch type also correlated with significant differences in well-being scores. Compared with children consuming a conventional breakfast (porridge, toast, cereal, yogurt, fruit, or a cooked meal), those eating no breakfast had mean well-being scores that were 2.73 (95% CI, 2.11-3.35) units lower (P < .001). Those consuming only an energy drink scored even worse: 3.14 (95% CI, 1.20- 5.09) units lower (P = .002).

  • Skipping lunch resulted in a 2.95-unit drop in well-being score (95% CI, 2.22-3.68, P < .001), compared with consuming a packed lunch.

In terms of the amounts of fruits and vegetables consumed, one or two daily portions were associated with a score 1.42 units higher, while three or four portions correlated with a score 2.34 units higher. Those eating five or more portions scored 3.73 units higher.

  • For primary school pupils, eating only a snack for breakfast was associated with a score 5.50 units lower, and consuming only a non–energy drink was tied to a score 2.67 units lower than eating a conventional breakfast. Not eating any breakfast was associated with a score 3.62 units lower.

  • Eating school food versus a packed lunch was associated with a score 1.27 units lower, although this wasn’t statistically significant. Having no lunch was associated with a score 6.08 units lower, although only a few children fell into this group.

“As a potentially modifiable factor, both at an individual and societal level, nutrition may therefore represent an important public health target for strategies to address childhood mental well-being,” the authors wrote, calling for further investigation of the association between nutrition and mental well-being.

This study was commissioned by Norfolk County Council Public Health and the Norfolk Safeguarding Children Board. The University of East Anglia and Social Care Partners provided funding to support Hayhoe’s work on this project.

Some coauthors are employed by the Norfolk County Council that commissioned the survey.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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