Teens who eat lots of fruits and vegetables are likely to enjoy better mental health.
That's the key takeaway from a new study that also tied a nutritious breakfast and lunch to emotional well-being in kids of all ages.
"This study provides the first insights into how fruit and vegetable intake affects children's mental health and contributes to the emerging evidence around 'food and mood,'" said Sumantra Ray, executive director of the NNEdPro Global Center for Nutrition and Health in Cambridge, United Kingdom.
Poor mental health is a growing concern for all young people, because problems often persist into adulthood, leading to underachievement and a poorer quality of life, according to the study authors.
For the study, published online Sept. 27 in the BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health, the researchers collected data on more than 10,800 U.K. students who participated in a 2017 survey focused on well-being.
The survey found that:
About 25% of secondary school students and 29% of primary schoolers ate the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, while 10% and 9%, respectively, ate none.
Around 21% of older students and 12% of younger kids had a non-energy drink or nothing at all for breakfast, and about 12% of secondary schoolers had no lunch.
Higher amounts of fruit and vegetables were significantly tied with better mental health scores — the higher the intake, the higher the score.
Eating a full breakfast, and not just a snack, breakfast bar or energy drink, was also tied to better mental well-being. Having just an energy drink for breakfast was linked to low mental health scores.
Skipping lunch was associated with lower mental health scores than brown-bagging.
Younger kids who had a snack or non-energy drink to start the day also had lower mental health scores as did those who skipped breakfast.
Compared with eating a packed lunch, eating school food was tied with lower mental health scores, although this wasn't statistically significant, the researchers said.
Ailsa Welch, a professor of nutritional epidemiology at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, led the study.
Her team noted that the importance of good nutrition for childhood growth and development is well established.
"Our study adds to this prior evidence the finding that nutrition is also highly relevant to childhood mental well-being," the authors concluded.
"As a potentially modifiable factor, both at an individual and societal level, nutrition may therefore represent an important public health target for strategies to address childhood mental well-being," the researchers explained in a journal news release.