Nutritious diet, completely happy thoughts – research hyperlinks weight-reduction plan with psychological wellbeing

New research has shown a clear link between a healthy diet and good mental wellbeing in an extensive study of British school children.

The study, led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) Health and Social Partners in collaboration with Norfolk County Council, is the first of its kind to examine such factors. Despite the generally accepted knowledge that consuming a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables contributes to physical well-being, ie to a healthy body, research into psychological well-being is lacking. Given the increasing prevalence of poor mental health in young adults and children, the cohort recognized that studying causal factors is critical.

The research team reported that higher consumption of fruits and vegetables corresponded with better well-being, especially among secondary school students. Children who ate five or more servings of fruit and vegetables a day had the highest scores for mental wellbeing.

The study included data from nearly 9,000 children in 50 Norfolk schools in the UK (7,570 secondary and 1,253 elementary school children) from the Norfolk Children and Young People’s Health and Wellbeing Survey.

This survey was commissioned by the Public Health Department of Norfolk County Council and the Norfolk Safeguarding Children Board. It was open to all Norfolk schools in October 2017.

The children involved in the study reported on their own eating habits and participated in age-appropriate tests of mental well-being that covered happiness, relaxation and good interpersonal relationships.

Lead researcher Prof. Ailsa Welch of the UEA’s Norwich Medical School said, “In terms of nutrition, we found that only about a quarter of secondary school children and 28 percent of elementary school children reported eating the recommended five times a day of fruits and vegetables. And just under one in ten children ate neither fruit nor vegetables.

“More than one in five secondary school children and one in ten elementary school children did not have breakfast. And more than one in ten high school children did not eat lunch.

Secondary school children who drank energy drinks for breakfast had particularly low scores for mental wellbeing, even lower than children who did not eat breakfast at all.

The team examined the relationship between nutritional factors and mental well-being, taking into account other factors that could have an impact – such as adverse childhood experiences and domestic situations.

Dr. Richard Hayhoe, also of UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We found that good food in children is associated with better mental wellbeing. And that there was a really strong correlation between a nutritious diet high in fruit and vegetables and better mental well-being, especially among secondary school children.

“We also found that the types of breakfast and lunch consumed by both elementary and secondary school students were also significantly associated with wellbeing.

“Children who ate traditional breakfast felt better than those who just ate a snack or a drink. However, secondary school children who drank energy drinks with breakfast had particularly low scores for mental wellbeing, even lower than children who did not eat breakfast at all.

“According to our data, in a class of 30 high school students, about 21 will have consumed a conventional breakfast and at least four will have nothing to eat or drink in the morning before school starts.

“Similarly, at least three students attend afternoon classes without having lunch. This is worrying and is likely to affect not only academic performance but also physical growth and development.

Dr. Stressing the critical role diet plays in children’s wellbeing, Hayhoe continued, “We also found that diet had as much or more of an impact on well-being as factors such as regular arguments or violence at home.

Prof. Welch commented: “As a potentially changeable factor at the individual and societal level, nutrition is an important public health goal for strategies to improve the psychological well-being of children.”

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