Food Choices Can Affect Mental Well-Being in Children, Study Shows

Kids eating lunch

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Key Takeaways

  • Nutrition is important for childhood growth, development, and mental well-being.
  • Taking in higher amounts of fruits and vegetables along with eating nutritious meals are associated with better mental well-being in children.
  • It is important for all children to have access to enjoyable, nourishing foods, as well as positive role models.

From school stress and bullying to pressure from social media, a variety of things can have a negative impact on a child's mental health. But can nutrition play a role?

A new study published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health looked at how nutritional intake in children is associated with mental well-being scores. What they discovered was that food choices have an impact.

"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

Rice adds that nutrient intake can play a role in optimal brain health and mental well-being, but it is just one part of the nutrition spectrum. Another important aspect is access to nourishing and enjoyable food, positive role models, and no pressure about dieting.

About the Study

The researchers looked at data from 7,570 high school and 1,253 primary school children in the "Norfolk Children and Young People Health and Well-Being Survey 2017 in the U.K." They measured the association between mental well-being and nutritional factors including vegetable and fruit intake, breakfast meal choices, and lunch meal choices.

The researchers found a strong association between fruit and vegetable consumption and higher mental well-being scores in high school students. In fact, those who consumed five or more servings of vegetables and fruits had higher well-being scores compared to those consuming none.

The researchers say 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.

The type of breakfast or lunch consumed was also associated with significant differences in well-being scores for children in all grades. Eating a balanced breakfast showed greater well-being scores compared to those who had no breakfast or who consumed only an energy drink. Likewise, children not eating any lunch had lower well-being scores compared to those consuming a packed lunch.

Reasons for Missed Meals

It is important to foster good mental health in children because studies show that mental health issues can persist into adulthood and lead to poorer life outcomes. But access and food selection may play a factor as well.

"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."

Rice explains that a child's food selection pattern may reflect food insecurity or stressful home life, which can lead to refusal to eat or overeating junk food. Similarly, weight-based bullying or exposure to parental dieting may encourage children to skip meals at school, she adds.

Diana Rice, RD

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...the importance of employing positive feeding practices.

— Diana Rice, RD

Rice says that instead of only prioritizing children's nutrient intakes, we need to explore the reasons for the child's poor well-being that may manifest as suboptimal food selection. Are they skipping vegetables because the family cannot afford them, so a child has never been exposed to them? Are they missing meals because of 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

A varied diet that contains vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and a variety of protein-rich foods will provide the right nutrients for brain health. Fruits and vegetables contain a host of nutrients that support brain health, 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.

Nutrients that are particularly important for a child’s brain health include protein, zinc, iron, choline, folate, and vitamins A, D, B6, and B12, she says.

Isa Kujawski, MPH, RDN

Diets containing adequate omega-3 fatty acids may be protective against anxiety disorders.

— Isa Kujawski, MPH, RDN

"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."

Both Rice and Kujawski also say that omega-3 fat is important for brain health in children. Omega-3 fats are found in fatty fish and sea algae (for vegan diets).

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

Eat Fewer Ultra-Processed Foods

Many kids get more than 60% of their calories from ultra-processed foods that are high in sugar, refined flour, salt, fat, and preservatives. These foods do not provide the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that are needed for optimal brain health.

"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."

What This Means For You

Nutrition is an important factor in a child's well-being according to research. As a role model, try to serve vegetables and fruits often, do not skip meals, and avoid talking about diets. Aim for meals that include a variety of nutrients from vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, fish, and nuts, but fewer ultra-processed foods. If you need assistance developing a meal plan, talk to a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Clark C, Rodgers B, Caldwell T, Power C, Stansfeld S. Childhood and adulthood psychological ill health as predictors of midlife affective and anxiety disorders: The 1958 British birth cohortArch Gen Psychiatry. 2007;64(6):668. doi:0.1001/archpsyc.64.6.668

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  4. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids.

  5. Wang L, Martínez Steele E, Du M, et al. Trends in consumption of ultra-processed foods among U.S. youths aged 2-19 years, 1999-2018JAMA. 2021;326(6):519. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.10238

By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.