Regardless of body weight, children who eat healthy diets are more likely to have higher self-esteem and fewer emotional and peer problems, such as having fewer friends or being picked on or bullied, according to new research published in the open access journal BMC Public Health.
“We found that in young children aged two to nine years there is an association between adherence to healthy dietary guidelines and better psychological well-being, which includes fewer emotional problems, better relationships with other children, and higher self-esteem, two years later. Our findings suggest that a healthy diet can improve well-being in children,” said study author Dr. Louise Arvidsson from the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
For the study, the researchers observed 7,675 children aged two to nine years from eight European countries: Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. The researchers found that a higher healthy dietary adherence score (HDAS) at the start of the study was associated with better self-esteem and fewer emotional and peer problems two years later.
The HDAS measures adherence to healthy dietary guidelines, such as limiting intake of refined sugars, reducing fat intake, and eating fruit and vegetables. A higher score on the HDAS indicates better adherence to healthy eating guidelines. The guidelines are the same among the eight countries in this study.
In addition, the researchers found that greater self-esteem at the study’s onset was associated with a higher HDAS two years later and that the associations between HDAS and wellbeing were similar for both normal-weight and overweight children.
“It was somewhat surprising to find that the association between baseline diet and better well-being two years later was independent of children’s socioeconomic position and their body weight,” said Arvidsson.
The researchers used data from the Identification and Prevention of Dietary- and Lifestyle-Induced Health Effects in Children and Infants Study, a prospective cohort study that aims to understand how to prevent overweight in children while also considering the multiple factors that contribute to it.
At the study’s onset, parents were asked how often their children consumed food from a list of 43 items. Based on their consumption of these foods, children were then assigned an HDAS score. Psychosocial well-being was rated using information on children’s self-esteem, parent relations, and emotional and peer problems as reported by the parents. Height and weight of the children were also measured. All questionnaires and measurements were repeated two years later.
The study is the first to investigate the individual components included in the HDAS and their associations with children’s wellbeing. Importantly, the findings show that fish intake according to guidelines (two to three times per week) was tied to greater self-esteem and no emotional and peer problems. Intake of whole meal products were associated with no peer problems.
The findings show several associations: Greater wellbeing was linked to consumption of fruits and vegetables and consumption of sugar and fat in accordance with dietary guidelines. Greater self-esteem was associated with sugar intake according to guidelines. Good parent relations were associated with fruit and vegetable consumption according to guidelines. Fewer emotional problems were associated with fat intake according to guidelines, and fewer peer problems were associated with consumption of fruit and vegetables according to guidelines.
The researchers warn, however, that the study has some drawbacks. For example, children with poor diet and poor wellbeing were more likely to drop out of the study and were therefore underrepresented at the two-year follow-up. This may have complicated conclusions about the true rates of poor diet and poor wellbeing. Also, since the study was observational and relied on self-reported data from parents, no conclusions about cause and effect can be made.
“The associations we identified here need to be confirmed in experimental studies including children with clinical diagnosis of depression, anxiety or other behavioral disorders rather than well-being as reported by parents,” said Arvidsson.
Source: BioMed Central