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Kids Who Eat More Fruits and Veggies Have Better Mental Health

John Bankston John Bankston December 21, 2021
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

What you eat matters. Research consistently reveals the benefits of plant-based diets. Eating two servings of fruits and three servings of vegetables has been linked to longevity. Examining the diets of over 41,000 people in France’s NutriNet-Santé study, researchers saw a link between diets rich in plant-based foods and a lower instance of cancer. Meanwhile, limiting sugar, salt, red meat, and processed food reduces the risk for everything from heart disease to obesity. A healthy diet can also improve your focus and energy. Yet while it’s important for adults, eating right is vital for young people. In fact, according to a recent study kids who eat more fruits and veggies have better mental health. So what are some of the surprising results and how can you help?


A Growing Problem Growing Up


Childhood obesity has been rising for decades. Over the last thirty years, the number of children considered obese has doubled. For adolescents, it has tripled. Whether the blame is placed on children trading sports for video games; school lunches laden with burgers, fries, and pizza; or car-dependent communities where park access is limited, one thing is certain. Our kids are getting heavier. 


Around one out of five children in the United States are considered obese according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s nearly 15 million children who are considered obese while millions more are overweight. Globally, that number approaches 50 million as Eastern cultures adopting a Western diet see a rise in overweight citizens as do poorer countries like Mexico.


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Obesity - Body Fat

Obesity - Body Fat

It’s about more than appearance. Overweight children face a host of adult-sized health problems including high blood pressure, respiratory issues, joint problems, and fatty liver disease. They also have a heightened risk for the condition once called “adult-onset” diabetes–young people with type 2 diabetes will likely struggle with it throughout adulthood. Indeed, overweight children usually become overweight adults. Sadly, many news reports describing children hospitalized with COVID-19 as “otherwise healthy” often ignored the fact that many were overweight. Indeed, the CDC notes that overweight children who tested positive for COVID-19 had a “3.07 times higher risk of hospitalization and a 1.42 times higher risk of severe illness (intensive care unit admission, invasive mechanical ventilation, or death) when hospitalized.”


Beyond physical health, being heavier than their peers elevates the risk that these children will be bullied and suffer low self esteem. They may be ostracized, anxious, and lonely. Yet battling mental issues may be as simple as adding more greens to their plate. 


The Study


Recently some 9,000 children in the United Kingdom took part in a landmark study. They not only self-reported what they ate but had their moods tracked by tests that noted how happy and relaxed they were along with the quality of their relationships. The results provided some surprising insights. For example, teenagers who just had an energy drink for breakfast scored lower on tests of mental wellbeing than those who skipped the meal entirely. Only around one out of four teens and 28% of primary-school children consumed the recommended five-a-day fruits and vegetables. Ten percent didn’t have any fruits or vegetables while 20% of teens didn’t eat breakfast.


What stood out for researchers was the stark contrast between those who ate plenty of fruits and vegetables and those who didn’t. Anxiety and depression had already been skyrocketing among those under 18. However, research done after the lockdowns of 2020 found that the percentage of children and teens reporting symptoms for those conditions had more than doubled. Obviously, navigating these potentially life-threatening conditions is about more than making sure Junior eats his broccoli. And yet… 


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Depression - Physical Symptoms

Depression - Physical Symptoms

Even the researchers were stunned, as Norwich Medical School’s Dr Richard Hayhoe explained, “We found that eating well was associated with better mental wellbeing in children. And that among secondary school children in particular, there was a really strong link between eating a nutritious diet, packed with fruit and vegetables, and having better mental wellbeing…we found that nutrition had as much or more of an impact on wellbeing as factors such as witnessing regular arguing or violence at home.”


The exciting part of this study is its simplicity. The rise in childhood anxiety and depression has been linked to social media, smartphone adoption, and more recently COVID-related lockdowns and remote learning. Yet those are massive obstacles requiring concerted efforts on the part of both governments and citizens. Yet here the simple addition of a few fresh fruits and veggies can make a real difference. Obviously it’s not the only solution, but if your child has an unhealthy diet or regularly skips meals then it’s worth doing all you can to affect change.


That doesn’t mean that limiting screen time isn’t a good idea. Nor should you just accept that your teen prefers video games to sport. Don’t assume the apple you pack for your first grader is getting eaten nor that your youngster is choosing veggies over pizza at the lunch line. Instead, try to make dinner time sacred time ––  at least a few times a week. Sit together and enjoy a healthy meal without electronic distractions. Parents and guardians who eat fruits and veggies are more likely to have children who do the same. Children who eat at a dinner table with their family are less likely to be obese. And if you have a younger child, chances are you are their main source of sugar, salt, and simple carbs. So cut off that supply. Take the time to hike, play tennis, or basketball as a family. Chances are you won’t just see an improvement in your offspring’s mood but in your mood as well.

Doctor Profile

John Bankston


John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.

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