Children's Mental Health Can Be Affected by Food Choices, Research Shows

September 18, 2022

Several factors, including bullying at school and social media pressure, can harm a child's mental health. But might diet be a factor? The relationship between children's dietary intake and mental well-being scores was examined in a recent study that was published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention, and Health. They found that there is a correlation between food choices and health.

"Being well-nourished is important for optimal functioning for both children and adults," says Diana Rice, RD, a registered dietitian specializing in pediatric and family health at Tiny Seed Family Nutrition.

According to Rice, food consumption can contribute to mental health and good brain function, but it is only one aspect of nutrition. Access to satisfying and healthful food, excellent role models, and a lack of dieting pressure are additional crucial factors.

About the Study

In the "Norfolk Children and Young People Health and Well-Being Survey 2017 in the U.K.," researchers examined data from 7,570 high school students and 1,253 primary school students to examine the relationship between mental health and dietary factors like fruit and vegetable intake and breakfast and lunch meal preferences. They discovered a significant link between fruit and vegetable consumption and higher mental well-being scores in high school. Individuals who ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables scored better on the well-being scale than those who didn't.

The type of breakfast or lunch consumed was also associated with significant differences in well-being scores for children in all grades. The researchers claim that the difference in mental well-being between children who consumed the most fruits and vegetables compared with those who consumed the least was similar to children experiencing almost daily arguing or violence at home. When compared to people who skipped breakfast or simply drank energy drinks, people who ate a balanced breakfast scored better on the well-being scale. Similarly, kids who skipped lunch scored worse on the well-being scale than kids who ate a packed lunch.

Reasons for Missed Meals

Because studies have shown that mental health problems can linger into adulthood and hurt life outcomes, it is crucial to promote healthy mental health in children. Accessibility and food options, however, might also be important.

"I'm not surprised that this study found a positive association between nutrition and a child's mental well-being," says Rice. "I am very surprised, however, with the way that this study frames nutrition as a modifiable factor available to improve children's mental well-being rather than exploring the ways in which poor well-being may negatively influence a child's food selection."

According to Rice, a child's eating habits may indicate food insufficiency or a stressful family environment, both of which can result in a reluctance to eat or excessive consumption of junk food. According to Rice, rather than focusing solely on children's nutrient intakes, we need to investigate the causes of the child's poor well-being, which may manifest as suboptimal food selection. Similar to bullying based on weight or exposure to parental dieting may encourage children to skip meals at school, she adds. Do they forgo veggies because their family is unable to buy them, preventing a youngster from ever experiencing them? Do they skip meals because they feel under pressure to diet?

"I absolutely believe that public health strategies should include tactics to promote good nutrition, but we should do so in tandem with improving children's access and exposure to high-quality foods as well as teaching parents and educators the importance of employing positive feeding practices to support children's mental well-being," says Rice.

Foods That Support Mental Health

The right nutrients for brain health will be provided by a diversified diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and a variety of protein-rich foods. 3 Fruits and vegetables provide a wealth of nutrients that support brain function, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

"In order to ensure nutrient diversity, children should consume a varied diet of whole foods that include foods like eggs, legumes, and a variety of fruits and vegetables," says dietitian Isa Kujawski, MPH, RDN from Mea Nutrition, who specializes in functional nutrition and the link between nutrition and mental health.

Protein, zinc, iron, choline, folate, and vitamins A, D, B6, and B12 are among the nutrients that are particularly crucial for a child's brain development, according to her.

"Many fruits and vegetables, including berries and dark leafy greens, contain beneficial compounds that increase blood flow to the brain and lower inflammation, which both play a positive role in children’s mood and cognition," says Kujawski. "And fiber from fruits and vegetables feed friendly gut bacteria which have been shown to play a role in mental health and the prevention of neurological conditions."

Omega-3 fatty acids, according to Rice and Kujawski, are crucial for young children's brain development. Fish that are high in fat and sea algae contain omega-3 lipids (for vegan diets).

"Diets containing adequate omega-3 fatty acids may be protective against anxiety disorders," says Rice.

Eat Fewer Ultra-Processed Foods

For many kids, ultra-processed meals heavy in sugar, refined flour, salt, fat, and preservatives account for more than 60% of their daily caloric intake. These foods lack the fiber, vitamins, and minerals essential for good brain function.

"Fruit juices, soda, and highly processed foods such as sugary cereals and baked goods should be limited, as they can disrupt blood sugar balance and promote symptoms such as inattentiveness and forgetfulness in children," says Kujawski. "These foods also have a low nutrient density which may crowd out a room in a child’s diet for more nutrient-dense foods."

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