Eating fruit and vegetables 'is good for children's mental health'

Children who eat a nutritious breakfast and more fruit and vegetables have better mental health, study claims

  • Experts described quality of some children’s meals and snacks as ‘concerning’
  • University of East Anglia nutritionists called for urgent action to improve them
  • They quizzed 10,853 pupils at 50 Norfolk schools on their diet and mental health

Children who eat a nutritious breakfast and more fruit and vegetables have better mental health, a study suggests.

A poor diet is potentially as detrimental to pupils’ wellbeing as being exposed to violence and rows at home, researchers warn.

They described the quality of some children’s meals and snacks as ‘concerning’ and called for urgent action to improve them.

A failure to act is also likely to impact on children’s growth, development and education, by hampering their ability to concentrate in class, they add.

A poor diet is potentially as detrimental to pupils’ wellbeing as being exposed to violence and rows at home, researchers warn

The nutritionists, from the University of East Anglia, quizzed 10,853 pupils at 50 Norfolk schools on their diet and mental health.

Only 25 per cent of secondary school pupils and 28.5 per cent of primary school pupils reported eating the recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day.

Some 10 per cent and 9 per cent respectively ate none.

Further, 22.3 per cent of secondary school pupils and 10.2 per cent of primary consumed only a drink or nothing for breakfast.

The average mental health score was 46.6 out of 70 for secondary school pupils and 46 out of 60 for primary school pupils.

Secondary school pupils who ate five or more portions of fruit or veg a day averaged 3.73 units higher than those who ate none.

And those who only had a snack or breakfast bar for breakfast scored 1.15 units lower than those who had the likes of toast, porridge, cereal, yoghurt, fruit, or fry-up.

Secondary school pupils who had nothing for breakfast scored 2.73 points lower than those who had a conventional meal, and those who only had an energy drink were 3.14 points down.

Among primary school children, eating only a snack for breakfast was associated with a score 5.50 units lower, according to findings published in the journal BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health.

Lead researcher Professor Ailsa Welch said: ‘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.

‘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 optimise mental wellbeing and empower children to fulfil their full potential.’ 

WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count

• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain

• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on

• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options

• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day

• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide 

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