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Kids Eating More Fruits and Vegetables Report Better Mental Health

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  • A new study in the United Kingdom found higher fruit and vegetable intake is strongly linked to better mental health in secondary schoolchildren.
  • The study authors wrote that they hope their research will encourage officials to make good nutrition available to all students.
  • To explore whether dietary choices may be linked to mental health, the researchers used surveys from more than 50 schools in the U.K. In total, nearly 11,000 students completed the survey.

New research is showing that a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables can also be good for the mind, especially if you’re a growing kid.

Research published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health shows that higher fruit and vegetable intake is strongly linked to better mental health in secondary schoolchildren. Furthermore, the research shows a nutritious breakfast and lunch are associated with emotional well-being, no matter your age.

“It is nice to see research that focuses on children, good nutrition, and its effects on mental health. There seems to be more stress and anxiety in children now, especially with the pandemic and being home for so long away from their peers and family,” said Audrey Koltun, RDN, CDCES, CDN, who specializes in pediatric endocrinology at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of NY.

To explore whether dietary choices may be linked to mental health, the researchers used surveys from more than 50 schools in the United Kingdom. In total, nearly 11,000 students completed the survey (with 8,823 valid surveys) and the evidence showed that the average mental health score was 46.6 out of 70 for secondary school kids and 46 out of 60 for primary school kids.

Of these, only 25 percent of secondary schoolchildren and 28.5 percent of primary schoolchildren reported eating the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Ten percent and nine percent, respectively, ate no fruits and vegetables. Around 21 percent of secondary school kids and 12 percent of primary school students ate only a non-energy drink or nothing for breakfast, while 11 percent ate no lunch.

The research found that students who ate one or two daily portions of fruit and vegetables scored 1.42 units higher, while eating three or four portions showed an increase of 2.34 units. Those who ate five or more portions had a score of 3.73 units higher.

“At a fundamental level, sufficient nutrition is required to provide the building blocks for the development and function of the body in both children and adults, including cell growth and replication, synthesis of DNA, neurotransmitter and hormone metabolism, and particularly critical to children, optimal nutrition is of importance for brain development,” the study authors wrote.

The study authors admit their research had limitations, including the fact that survey responses can be inaccurate.

“Fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Many of the children and families I work with do not eat enough of these foods. When schools have standardized tests, they often send a note home to be sure the children eat a healthy breakfast that day,” added Koltun. “Why not recommend that every day?”

Fruits and vegetables bring a strong set of physical benefits. The link between physical health and mental health has long been known, including the connection between a healthy diet and mood within adults. Expanding the concept for children seems only natural, according to experts.

“I usually suggest an eating style that includes a variety of foods including plant-based foods, limiting refined and processed carbohydrates and sugar, as well as drinking more water and little or no sugar-sweetened beverages,” said Koltun.

Eating lean and healthy proteins can also help people avoid the feeling of a “sugar crash” after your blood sugar spikes and then drops.

“We know that good nutrition can help with brain development, but now the fact that it has an impact on mental well-being is monumental. We can add this to our list of reasons why good nutrition and good eating habits can help our pediatric clients,” Koltun said.

The study authors wrote that they hope their research will encourage officials to enact policies that would help children get more access to nutritious and fresh foods both in and out of school settings. While this study was based in the U.K., n the U.S. mean many children have little access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables on a daily basis.

“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 optimize mental well-being and empower children to fulfill their full potential,” they wrote.

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