Is Diet Affecting Children’s Mood, Happiness, and Well-being?
Adolescence is a developmental period commonly associated with increasing independence. With regards to eating behavior, teens and young adults take on more responsibility for exactly when they eat, along with what types of foods they choose to consume. This age group is therefore at greater risk for developing unhealthy lifestyle habits (Quehl et al., 2017).
Adolescence is a developmental period commonly associated with increasing independence
One lifestyle habit that tends to develop during the adolescent years is skipping meals. Hayhoe et al. (2021) explored the relationship between dietary choices and mental well-being and discovered that secondary school-age students who skipped breakfast or lunch scored lower on well-being. Well-being scores were also lower for those who chose an energy drink over eating a more traditional breakfast. Similar findings have been reported for older adolescents (Lesani et al., 2016). More specifically, college students who ate breakfast and did not skip meals reported being happier.
So, once teens decide to eat, WHAT they eat definitely matters. Higher fruit and vegetable intake has been repeatedly linked to better mental health and well-being (Glabska et al., 2020; Guzek et al., 2020; Hayhoe et al.). Self-reported creativity, curiosity, and “eudaemonic” well-being (whether people feel engaged and experience life as meaningful and purposeful) are also greater with higher fruit and vegetable consumption (Conner et al., 2015).
Higher fruit and vegetable intake has been linked to better mental health and mental well-being
You may have heard of the Mediterranean diet — it has garnered much attention for its potential mental health benefits. It includes fish, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes/nuts, and monounsaturated fats from olive oil. This diet prioritizes whole foods over highly processed convenience foods. Adherence to a Mediterranean diet among adolescents has been associated with higher levels of subjective happiness, mental well-being, and positive emotional states (Esteban-Gonzalo et al., 2019; Ferrer-Cascales et al., 2019; Lopez-Olivares et al., 2020). Unfortunately, teens more commonly adopt Westernized diets. These consist of high-inflammatory foods, such as refined starches, sugar, saturated fats, and trans-fats that are nutritionally deficient. Think of processed meats, chips, sugary desserts, and other “junk” foods.
Increased symptoms of depression have been associated with diets poorer in nutritional quality among female college students (Quehl et al.). McMartin et al. (2013) noted similar findings in preadolescents; diet quality was inversely associated with feelings of worry, sadness, or unhappiness. In other words, as diet quality dropped, these negative feelings grew. Also worth noting is that inflammatory dietary components can lead to a higher risk of being in the worst mental well-being category on outcome measures of psychosocial health, quality of life, and life satisfaction in this preadolescent age group (Lycett et al., 2021). Observing the diet trends in this slightly younger age group can help us predict what food choices they will make in adolescence.
Westernized diets more commonly adopted by teens consist of high-inflammatory foods
On a positive note, it doesn’t take long to notice the mental health benefits of a nutrient-rich diet. According to White et al. (2013), eating fruits and vegetables predicted improvements in positive affect the following day for young adults. These meaningful changes in positive affect were noted with 7-8 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Smith and Rogers (2014) reported that eating fruit as a mid-afternoon snack for just 10 consecutive days (versus a chocolate/crisp) was associated with lower anxiety, depression, and emotional distress.
Researchers are just beginning to investigate dietary change as an intervention for the treatment of mental health problems. To date, Francis et al.’s 2019 study represents the only randomized controlled trial demonstrating how a brief, three-week diet intervention in young adults decreases symptoms of depression. By increasing their intake of vegetables, fruits, whole-grain cereals, protein, unsweetened dairy, fish, nuts and seeds, olive oil, and spices, and decreasing refined carbohydrates, sugar, fatty or processed meats, and soft drinks, participants saw a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. Intervention effects were even maintained at a three-month follow-up.
Researchers are just beginning to investigate dietary change as an intervention for the treatment of mental health problems
The teen years are often characterized by greater freedom, increased opportunity, and new challenges. What adolescents eat and when they eat can impact their outlook on these experiences and affect their overall well-being. So, when addressing the question, “Is diet affecting our children’s mood, happiness, and well-being?” the answer is proving to be “Yes.” To find out more about the child diet-mental health relationship, view CNP’s Parent Research Libraries.
Conner, T. S., Brookie, K. L., Richardson, A. C., & Polak, M. A. (2015). On carrots and curiosity: Eating fruit and vegetables is associated with greater flourishing in daily life. British Journal of Health Psychology, 20(2), 413-427. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjhp.12113
Esteban-Gonzalo, L., Turner, A. I., Torres, S. J., Esteban-Cornejo, I., Castro-Piñero, J., Delgado-Alfonso, Á., Marcos, A., Gómez-Martínez, S., & Veiga, Ó. L. (2019). Diet quality and well-being in children and adolescents: The UP&DOWN longitudinal study. The British Journal of Nutrition, 121(2), 221–231. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114518003070
Ferrer-Cascales, R., Albaladejo-Blazquez, N., Ruiz-Robledillo, N., Clement-Carbonell, V., Sánchez-SanSegundo, M., & Zaragoza-Marti, A. (2019). Higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet is related to more subjective happiness in adolescents: The role of health-related quality of life. Nutrients, 11(3), 698. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11030698
Francis, H. M., Stevenson, R. J., Chambers, J. R., Gupta, D., Newey, B., & Lim, C. K. (2019). A brief diet intervention can reduce symptoms of depression in young adults – A randomised controlled trial. PLoS ONE, 14(10), e0222768. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0222768
Glabska, D., Guzek, D., Groele, B., & Gutkowska, K. (2020). Fruit and vegetables intake in adolescents and mental health: A systematic review. Roczniki Państwowego Zakładu Higieny, 71(1), 15-25. https://doi.org/10.32394/rpzh.2019.0097
Guzek, D., Głąbska, D., Groele, B., & Gutkowska, K. (2020). Role of fruit and vegetables for the mental health of children: A systematic review. National Institute of Hygiene, 71(1), 5–13. https://doi.org/10.32394/rpzh.2019.0096
Hayhoe, R., Rechel, B., Clark, A. B., Gummerson, C., Smith, S. J. L., & Welch A. A. (2021). Cross-sectional associations of schoolchildren’s fruit and vegetable consumption, and meal choices, with their mental well-being: A cross-sectional study. BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health 2021; 0. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjnph-2020-000205
Lesani, A., Mohammadpoorasl, A., Javadi, M., Esfeh, J. M., & Fakhari, A. (2016). Eating breakfast, fruit and vegetable intake and their relation with happiness in college students. Eating and weight disorders: EWD, 21(4), 645–651. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-016-0261-0
López-Olivares, M., Mohatar-Barba, M., Fernández-Gómez, E., & Enrique-Mirón, C. (2020). Mediterranean diet and the emotional well-being of students of the campus of Melilla (University of Granada). Nutrients, 12(6), 1826. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12061826
Lycett, K. M., Wijayawickrama, D. J., Liu, M., Grobler, A., Burgner, D. P., Baur, L. A., Liu, R., Lange, K., Wake, M, & Kerr, J. A. (2021). Does an inflammatory diet affect mental well-being in late childhood and mid-life? A cross-sectional study. British Journal of Nutrition, 17, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114521001616
McMartin, S. E., Willows, N. D., Colman, I., Ohinmaa, A., Storey, K., & Veugelers, P. J. (2013). Diet quality and feelings of worry, sadness or unhappiness in Canadian children. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 104(4), e322-326. https://doi.org/10.17269/cjph.104.3845
Quehl, R., Haines, J., Lewis, S. P., & Buchholz, A. C. (2017). Food and mood: Diet quality is inversely associated with depressive symptoms in female university students. Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research : A Publication of Dietitians of Canada = Revue canadienne de la pratique et de la recherche en diététique : une publication des Diététistes du Canada, 78(3), 124–128. https://doi.org/10.3148/cjdpr-2017-007
Smith, A. P., & Rogers, R. (2014). Positive effects of a healthy snack (fruit) versus an unhealthy snack (chocolate/crisps) on subjective reports of mental and physical health: a preliminary intervention study. Frontiers in Nutrition, 1, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2014.00010
White, B. A., Horwath, C. C., & Conner, T. S. (2013). Many apples a day keep the blues away–daily experiences of negative and positive affect and food consumption in young adults. British Journal of Health Psychology, 18(4), 782-798. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjhp.12021