Healthy Diet Key to Kids' Well-being

Megan Brooks

December 28, 2017

A new study found a bidirectional link between diet quality and psychosocial well-being in young children. Children who were healthy eaters were more likely to be happy and well-adjusted, and those who were happy were more apt to be healthy eaters.

Mounting evidence suggests that diet is an important determinant of mental health. "Our findings suggest that a healthy diet can improve well-being in children," first author Louise Arvidsson, a PhD student and registered dietician from Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, said in a statement.

The study was published online December 14 in BMC Public Health.

Food for a Better Mood

Arvidsson and colleagues investigated bidirectional associations between adherence to healthy dietary guidelines and psychosocial well-being in 7675 children (51% boys) aged 2 to 9 years from eight European countries. The children are participants in the Identification and Prevention of Dietary- and Lifestyle-Induced Health Effects in Children and Infants Study (IDEFICS).

At baseline, parents reported how often each week their children consumed food from a list of 43 items. Using this information, the researchers assigned each child a Healthy Dietary Adherence Score (HDAS).

The HDAS captures adherence to healthy dietary guidelines, which include limiting intake of refined sugars, reducing fat intake, and eating fruit and vegetables. A higher HDAS indicates better adherence to the guidelines and therefore a healthier diet.

The researchers also measured children's weight and height and assessed well-being with respect to self-esteem, parent relations, and emotional and peer problems, as reported by parents using validated questionnaires. All questionnaires and measurements were repeated 2 years after baseline assessment.

Results showed that a higher HDAS at baseline was associated with better self-esteem (odds ratio [OR], 1.2; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.0 - 1.4), fewer emotional problems (OR, 1.2; 95% CI, 1.1 - 1.3), and fewer peer problems (OR, 1.3; 95% CI, 1.2 0 1.4) 2 years later.

An analysis exploring individual components of the HDAS found that guideline-based fruit and vegetable intake was associated with all indicators of well-being. Fish intake in accordance with the guidelines was associated with better self-esteem and an absence of emotional or peer problems; and adequate intake of whole meal was associated with an absence of peer problems.

The associations between baseline diet and better well-being were independent of children's socioeconomic position and body weight.

Emotions Influence Eating and Vice Versa

"These findings are fully consistent with current knowledge and assumptions that children's physical and mental development is dependent on nutritional quality," write Arvidsson and colleagues.

"Although it is beyond the scope of the present study to draw any conclusions about the mechanism(s) that links diet and well-being, one could hypothesize the biological significance of omega-3 fatty acids and the micronutrient content of the diet may positively impact mental health," they say.

The associations in the study were found to go in both directions; better baseline well-being was associated with a healthier eating pattern and individual components of the HDAS. More specifically, better baseline self-esteem was associated with limited intake of refined sugars; good parental relations were associated with adequate fruit and vegetable consumption; fewer emotional problems correlated with reduced fat intake (especially saturated fat); and fewer peer problems correlated with consumption of fruits and vegetables in accordance with guidelines.

"These findings are unique in that they are based on a large longitudinal study of children from different parts of Europe, adding to the largely cross-sectional, current evidence on diet and psychosocial health in children," the investigators write.

The positive role of a healthy diet on children's well-being "should be considered in future research on psychosocial well-being in children," they add.

The study had no commercial funding. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

BMC Public Health. Published online December 14, 2017. Full text

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