Mental Health for Kids
Mental health struggles are not exclusive to adults. Kids of all ages can develop the same emotional problems as grown-ups, especially when their needs are not being met or when external factors, like schooling, social media pressures, or a stressful home environment negatively impact their sense of security and well-being.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, at least one in six US children suffers from a mental health disorder such as ADHD, anxiety, or depression. And, unfortunately, this number is on the rise, exacerbated by the unprecedented changes and distress kids have had to endure during the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides the following definition for children to be mentally healthy:
“Being mentally healthy during childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems. Mentally healthy children have a positive quality of life and can function well at home, in school, and in their communities.”
Recognizing the signs of stress in your child and talking to his or her doctor if you’re concerned about their mental health are important ways of supporting them through emotional struggles. But what if the little things we do for our kids each day, such as offering them healthier food alternatives, could also impact their current and future psychological well-being? This is the question that a group of researchers set out to answer in a study published in the British Medical Journal of Nutrition last month. This is what they found:
Good Food, Good Mood
The study, which looked at data from over 10,000 primary and secondary school children from Norfolk, UK, was the first to look at the associations between fruit and veggie intake, breakfast choices, and mental wellbeing among kids in the United Kingdom.
“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,” said lead researcher Professor Aisla Welch.
The results showed that higher consumption of both fruits and vegetables was associated with better mental well-being among secondary school students. Still, only a quarter of them, and 28% of primary school kids, were getting the recommended five-servings-a-day. Moreover, one in every 10 children didn’t consume any fruits or veggies at all.
The relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and mental health was also a linear one, meaning that kids who ate five or more portions had higher psychological well-being than those who ate four, who, in turn, had better mental well-being than those who ate one or two, and so on. Mental well-being was defined by the authors as “a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, [and] can work productively and fruitfully (…).”
Breakfast and lunch choices were also associated with mental wellbeing. Children who ate only a snack or breakfast bar fared significantly worse in terms of mental health than those who had a conventional-type breakfast (i.e., cereal, yogurt, toast, fruit) before going to school. Kids who didn’t eat any breakfast at all had even lower mental wellbeing scores. And children who drank energy drinks for breakfast had the lowest scores of all.
Likewise, students that didn’t consume lunch had lower scores than kids who did. And unfortunately, the researchers found that in a class of 30 pupils, at least three will go into afternoon class without eating any lunch. This is particularly concerning because kids who don’t have enough to eat are more likely to develop health conditions like asthma and anemia, as well as behavioral issues like anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity.
Another surprising find was that diet was as much or even more impactful on a child’s mental wellbeing as some adverse childhood experiences, such as witnessing daily or almost daily violence or arguing at home. This serves as a reminder that a well-balanced diet can be as important to a stable and positive mood as other practices that promote good mental health.
Dietary Recommendations for Children
The U.S Department of Agriculture makes the following recommendations for children based on age and gender. These are the minimum recommended intakes for active children, but if your kids want to eat more fruits and veggies, that’s great! And remember that while fresh is always best, frozen, canned, and dried fruits and vegetables also count as a portion.
- Ages 2 – 3: 1 cup
- Ages 4 – 8: 1 ½ cups
- Ages 9 – 13: 2 cups
- Ages 14 – 18: 2 ½ cup
- Ages 9 – 13: 2 ½ cups
- Ages 14 – 18: 3 cups
- Ages 2 – 3: 1 cup
- Ages 4 – 8: 1 to 1 ½ cups
- Ages 9 – 18: 1 ½ cups
- Ages 9 – 13: 1 ½ cups
- Ages 14 – 18: 2 cups
Food for Thought – Kids Who Eat More Fruits & Vegetables Have Better Mental Health
The Takeaway: To give children a good start in life and promote good health and feelings of wellbeing now and in the long run, it’s important that parents provide a variety of fruits and vegetables in their children’s diet at an early age and throughout their childhood.
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