Research from the University of East Anglia found that eating more fruits and vegetables bolsters mental health in children. The study published in September 2021 marks the first to analyze the link between better nutrition and mental well-being in UK schoolchildren.

The research highlights how eating well improves cognitive function, especially in secondary school children. Researchers found that children who ate five or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day had the best mental well-being.

UEA Health and Social Care Partners led the study in collaboration with Norfolk County Council. The findings have been published in BMJ Journals.

The team investigated the association between fruit and vegetable intake, breakfast and lunch choices, and mental health for the study. They said that public health and school officials should collaborate to develop food plans with high nutritional value.

Ensuring each child can access quality foods before and after school enables them to reach their full potential. Children with better mental well-being will perform at a higher level, both academically and personally.

What the Experts Say About Eating Fruits and Vegetables for a Healthier Life

fruits and vegetables

Lead researcher Prof Ailsa Welch, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We know that poor mental well-being 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 well-being in children and young people. And there is a growing recognition of the importance of mental health and well-being in early life — not least because adolescent mental health problems often persist into adulthood, leading to poorer life outcomes and achievement.”

Indeed, previous studies have shown how a poor diet in childhood negatively impacts health later in life. One study by UC Riverside found that children eating a Westernized diet had higher instances of gut dysbiosis. A diet high in sugar in fat led to a less diverse microbiome, which caused a cognitive and physical decline.

Study Finds Children Who Eat Fruits and Vegetables Have Better Mental Health

“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 well-being. So, we set out to investigate the association between dietary choices and mental well-being among schoolchildren,” Welch said.

The team analyzed data from the Norfolk Children and Young People’s Health and Well-being Survey for the study. It included nearly 9,000 children (7,570 secondary and 1,253 primary school children) in fifty schools across Norfolk.

The Public Health department of Norfolk County Council and the Norfolk Safeguarding Children Board commissioned the survey. All Norfolk schools had access to it during October 2017.

Children participating in the study self-reported their dietary intake and completed mental well-being assessments. The questionnaires asked about their cheerfulness, relaxation, and personal relationships.

Professor Welch said: “In terms of nutrition, we found that only around a quarter of secondary-school children and 28 percent of primary-school children reported eating the recommended five-a-day fruits and vegetables. And just under one in ten children were eating no fruits or vegetables. More than one in five secondary school children and one in 10 primary children didn’t eat breakfast. And more than one in 10 secondary school children didn’t eat lunch.”

When the team investigated how fruits and vegetables impacted mental health, they also considered other factors. Adverse childhood experiences and home life could create mental distress, they said.

However, even when taking those factors into consideration, fruits and vegetables still bolstered mental health overall.

The Importance of Eating Breakfast and Lunch for Children

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.”

In addition, researchers found that secondary school children who had only energy drinks for breakfast experienced poor mental health. Surprisingly, children who had no breakfast at all still had better mental well-being than the former group.

About the Study

“According to our data, in a class of 30 secondary school pupils, around 21 will have consumed a conventional-type breakfast, and at least four will have had nothing to eat or drink before starting classes in the morning,” Hayhoe said.

“Similarly, at least three pupils will go into afternoon classes without eating any lunch. This is of concern and likely to affect not only academic performance at school but also physical growth and development. Another interesting thing that we found was that nutrition had as much or more of an impact on well-being as factors such as witnessing regular arguing or violence at home.”

While no child deserves a problematic home life, the study shows that improved nutrition could have a protective effect on mental health regardless. Hopefully, the research will improve public health and school policies to expand access to fresh, whole foods.

Prof 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 well-being.”

fruits and vegetables

Final Thoughts: Children Who Eat More Fruits and Vegetables Enjoy Better Mental Well-being

Most people know that eating more fruits and vegetables will benefit health. However, it’s often difficult to encourage children to eat foods with high nutritional value. If they prefer to eat sugary, processed foods, they might turn their nose up at a plate of broccoli, for example. That’s why it’s essential to establish healthy eating habits from an early age.

The study above highlights the need for children to eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables. It doesn’t just improve their physical health; quality nutrition also provides the fuel their brains need to function correctly.

So, if you have kids, make sure they’re eating their green beans and bananas! Cooking nutrient-dense foods may take more effort, but it will pay off in the long run.