Fruits, Vegetables and Children’s Brain

October 20, 2021

New scientific study shows higher fruits and vegetables intake is significantly associated with better mental health in schoolchildren.

Higher fruits and vegetables intake is significantly associated with better mental health in secondary schoolchildren, while a nutritious breakfast and lunch is linked to emotional wellbeing in pupils across the age spectrum, finds new UK research published in the British Medical Journal “BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health.”

“Poor mental well-being”, researchers write, “is a major issue for young people and is likely to have long-term negative consequences. The contribution of nutrition is underexplored. We, therefore, investigated the association between dietary choices and mental well-being among schoolchildren.”

“Nutrition is important for childhood growth and development, but little research has investigated nutrition in relation to mental well-being, therefore, the relationship between nutrition and well-being in children of school age is not known.”

“In this study nutritional intake was associated with mental well-being scores in both primary and secondary school children. Higher fruit and vegetable consumption was significantly associated with better mental well-being in secondary pupils. Also, the type of breakfast and lunch consumed, by both primary and secondary pupils, was significantly associated with well-being.”

“In a class of 30 secondary school children, 4 had nothing to eat or drink before starting classes in the morning, and 3 had nothing to eat or drink before starting classes in the afternoon. The difference in mental well-being between children who consumed the most fruits and vegetables compared with the lowest was of a similar scale to those children experiencing daily, or almost daily, arguing or violence at home.”

“Data from 7,570 secondary school and 1,253 primary school children in the Norfolk Children and Young People Health and Well-being Survey, open to all Norfolk schools during October 2017, were analysed. … We adjusted all analyses for important covariates including demographic, health variables, living/home situation and adverse experience variables.” Dietary questions aimed to explore fruit and vegetable intake, as well as type of breakfast and lunch eaten; alcohol intake; eligibility for free school meals; and satisfaction with weight.

“In secondary school analyses, a strong association between nutritional variables and well-being scores was apparent. Higher combined fruit and vegetable consumption was significantly associated with higher well-being. … In primary school analyses, the type of breakfast or lunch was associated with significant differences in well-being scores in a similar way to those seen in secondary school data, although no significant association with fruit and vegetable intake was evident.”

Only around 1 in 4 (25%) secondary school pupils and 28.5% of primary school pupils reported eating the recommended 5 portions of fruits and veggies a day, with 10% and 9%, respectively, eating none. Around 1 in 5 (21%) secondary school pupils and 1 in 8 (12%) primary school pupils consumed only a non-energy drink or nothing at all for breakfast, while around 1 in 8 secondary school children (11.5%) ate no lunch. Higher combined fruits and veggies intake was significantly associated with higher mental health scores; the higher the intake, the higher was the score.

Compared with secondary school pupils eating no fruit or veg, eating one or two daily portions was associated with a score 1.42 units higher, while eating 3 or 4 portions was associated with a score 2.34 units higher. Eating 5 or more portions was associated with a score 3.73 units higher. Breakfast type was also significantly associated with mental wellbeing. Compared with a conventional breakfast, such as toast, porridge, cereal, yoghurt, fruit, or a cooked breakfast, eating only a snack or breakfast bar was associated with a score that was 1.15 units lower.

Consumption of energy drinks as a breakfast substitute was associated with particularly low mental health scores, and lower than those for children eating no breakfast at all. Just having nothing more than an energy drink was associated with a score 3.14 units lower; not eating any breakfast at all was associated with a score 2.73 units lower. Similarly, lunch type was also significantly associated with mental health scores. Not eating any lunch was associated with a score 2.95 units lower than when eating a packed lunch.

Among primary school pupils, eating only a snack for breakfast was associated with a score 5.50 units lower while consuming only a non-energy drink was associated with a score 2.67 units lower than those eating a conventional breakfast. Not eating any breakfast was associated with a score 3.62 units lower. And compared with eating a packed lunch, eating school food 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 there were only a few children in this group, caution the researchers.

This is an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause. But, the researchers argue: “The importance of good quality nutrition for childhood growth and development is well established. Our study adds to this prior evidence the finding that nutrition is also highly relevant to childhood mental wellbeing. The difference in mental wellbeing between children who ate the most fruit and vegetables and those who ate the least was of a similar scale to those children who reported daily, or almost daily, arguing or violence at home, they point out. 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 wellbeing.”

Authors conclude: “These findings provide important information to advance our understanding of the nutritional and other factors involved in childhood mental well-being. 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 well-being and empower children to fulfil their full potential.”

Full Study entitled, “Cross-sectional associations of schoolchildren’s fruit and vegetable consumption, and meal choices, with their mental well-being: a cross-sectional study”