Nutrition and mental health

Nutrition affects mental health and wellbeing, and promotes and maintains healthy brain development in children and young people.
Lady in kitchen at school or early learning service

How are nutrition and mental health linked?

Healthy eating helps children and young people feel better about themselves and their bodies, cope more effectively with stress, better manage their emotions and get a good sleep – all of which assist learning.

In contrast, poor nutrition has been linked to emotional and behavioural problems and increased learning difficulties. 

Most research about nutrition and mental health has focused on adults. Researchers have found that good nutrition is associated with better mental health outcomes, whereas a poor diet is associated with a greater risk of depression and anxiety.  

Emerging research that focuses on children and young people has also found a relationship between unhealthy diets and poorer mental health outcomes.  There is a link between externalising behaviour (such as hyperactivity, aggression, disobedience) and diet.

For example, poor nutrition has been associated with symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Poor nutrition also affects concentration and increases tiredness, which then interferes with learning. Children and young people’s behaviour, and their academic performance improves when good quality food is eaten.

Dietary habits aren't always a choice

‘Food insecurity’ – where people don’t have enough food due to because of things such as unemployment and poverty – is also a problem for many families in Australia. Food insecurity can result in poorer academic performance, time off from school, stress, depression, anxiety, aggression, and difficulty getting along with others. 

  • There are several reasons for how diet may affect mental health

    • Fruits and vegetables, grains, fish, lean red meats and olive oils are rich in important nutrients such as folate, magnesium, vitamins and zinc which all impact on body and brain functions including mood regulation. Nutrient deficiencies have been associated with mental health conditions including depression and anxiety.
    • Poor nutrition affects the immune system which is also linked to mental health functioning.
    • High-fat, high-sugar diets can affect proteins in the body that are important for brain development.
    • Iron deficiency has been linked to cognitive function impairments associated with learning and memory.
    • Food insecurity is a psychological stressor. High levels of ongoing stress have been related to depression and cognitive deficits.

    The good news is that improving what you eat can lead to improvements in your mental health so it’s never too late to encourage healthier eating patterns. 

  • Australian dietary guidelines

    The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that we all increase our intake of fruit and vegetables and reduce foods high in sugar, salt and fat. However, changing lifestyles and increased access to processed foods mean many children and young people fail to meet these recommendations.

    For example, less than 1% of children and young people aged two to 18 years consume the recommended amount of vegetables each day.

    Children and young people need support to learn about nutrition and to establish lifelong healthy eating habits. While much of this work is done by families at home, early learning services and schools can also play a role in promoting healthy eating to help promote and support children and young people’s development and learning.

  • What can services and schools do to encourage healthy eating?

    Early learning services and schools have an active role to play in promoting healthy eating. Here are some ideas for how you can help promote good dietary habits.

    Early learning services can:
    • make mealtimes as relaxed and comfortable as possible and sit and eat with the children
    • talk positively about the healthy foods the children are eating
    • encourage children to drink water throughout the day
    • be a good role model with the foods you eat
    • teach children about healthy eating in group discussions and in games and activities
    • provide opportunities for cooking or food preparation (for example making a fruit salad)
    • plant a vegetable garden with greens children can pick and eat (such as herbs and lettuce).
    Schools can:
    • only offer healthy foods in school canteens and vending machines
    • provide clean drinking water fountains
    • develop a school vegetable garden and incorporate cooking activities in class using the produce you’ve grown
    • incorporate breaks for students to eat fruit and vegetables in class
    • allow students to bring water bottles into the classroom
    • be a positive role model and pack your own healthy food
    • use non-food rewards (pencils, stickers) instead of sweet treats
    • create partnerships with the local community (such as local food growers or food markets) and utilise these partners in school projects, work experience opportunities
    • apply for funding to provide fresh fruit and vegetables in class at least once a week. 
  • References

    Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). (2017). Australian Health Survey: Consumption of Food Groups from the Australian Dietary Guidelines, 2011-12. Canberra: ABS. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/
    4364.0.55.012main+features12011-12.

    Jacka, F. N., Kremer, P. J., Berk, M., de Silva-Sanigorski, A. M., Moodie, M., Leslie, E. R., & Swinburn, B. A. (2011). A prospective study of diet quality and mental health in adolescents. PloS one, 6(9), e24805.

    Jyoti, D. F., Frongillo, E. A., & Jones, S. J. (2005). Food insecurity affects school children's academic performance, weight gain, and social skills. The Journal of Nutrition, 135(12), 2831-2839.

    National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). (2013) Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: NHMRC. Retrieved from https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines-publications/n55.

    O'Neil, A., Quirk, S., Housden, S., Brennan, S., Williams, L., Pasco, J., & Jacka, F. (2014). Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: A systematic review. American Journal of Public Health, 104(10), E31-42.

    Tomlinson, D., Wilkinson, H., & Wilkinson, P. (2009). Diet and mental health in children. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 14(3), 148-155.

    Townsend, N., Murphy, S., & Moore, L. (2011). The more schools do to promote healthy eating, the healthier the dietary choices by students. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 65(10), 889-895.