The study shows eating more fruit and vegetables is linked with better wellbeing among secondary school pupils in particular. Children who consumed five or more portions of fruit and veg a day had the highest scores for mental wellbeing.
The study was led by UEA Health and Social Care Partners in collaboration with Norfolk County Council. The research team studied data from almost 9,000 children in 50 schools across Norfolk (7,570 secondary and 1,253 primary school children).
Children involved in the study self-reported their dietary choices and took part in age-appropriate tests of mental wellbeing that covered cheerfulness, relaxation and having good interpersonal relationships.
Lead researcher Prof Ailsa Welch, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “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 wellbeing. So, we set out to investigate the association between dietary choices and mental wellbeing among schoolchildren.
“In terms of nutrition, we found that only around a quarter of secondary-school children and 28% of primary-school children reported eating the recommended five-a-day fruits and vegetables. And just under one in ten children were not eating any fruits or vegetables.
“More than one in five secondary schoolchildren and one in ten primary children didn’t eat breakfast. And more than one in ten secondary schoolchildren didn’t eat lunch.”
The research team say that public health strategies and school policies should be developed to ensure that good quality nutrition is available to all children before and during school to optimise mental wellbeing and empower children to fulfil their full potential.
Dr Richard Hayhoe, also from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, added: “Children who ate a traditional breakfast experienced better wellbeing than those who only had a snack or drink. But secondary school children who drank energy drinks for breakfast had particularly low mental wellbeing scores, even lower than for those children consuming no breakfast at all.
“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.
“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.”