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We need to talk about food insecurity and its impact on young people’s mental health

Image of packed lunch with fruit.
Credit: valeria_aksakova (Freepik)

Opinion / by Ufuoma Onemu

Yes, fruit and vegetables are good for the mental health of young people –but what use is knowing that if children can't access either?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mentally healthy children reach emotional and developmental milestones at the appropriate time and develop adequate ways to cope with problems. Additionally, they function well at school, at home and in the community. In essence, they have a positive quality of life.

At a time where social media is under heavy scrutiny for its effects on today’s youth, you’d be forgiven for thinking that technology is the sole factor preventing young people from experiencing such a positive quality of life. And you wouldn’t be far wrong if you did indeed think that: from an evolutionary point of view, technology is far more integral to general life for today’s younger generations than any generation before them, no doubt influencing their ability to learn, to develop resilience, decision making and coping skills, and to form friendships.

But, of course, there are many other factors we should be looking at too. One that made the news recently was diet, specifically the intake of fruits and vegetables.

The importance of 5-a-day

Since 23rd March 2003, the UK government has encouraged us all to consume 5 fruits and vegetables every day for the benefit of our own physical and mental health. Naturally, this guidance, which is based on years of clinical research into the benefits fruit and veg can provide for our health, extends to children too.

Between 2003 and now, plenty of research into the impact of diet on young people points to the guidance being a particularly good rule of thumb for protecting their mental health specifically. We now know for example that unhealthy diet and poor nutrition is linked to externalising behaviours (such as hyperactivity, aggression, disobedience), fatigue and inability to concentrate, slow brain development (caused by high-sugar and high-fat content affecting the proteins responsible for brain development), learning and memory impairment (resulting from iron deficiency), and risk of depression and anxiety.

In a systematic review published last year, which analysed the data of 12 studies that investigated the connection between fruit and vegetable consumption and the mental wellbeing of pre-schoolers and schoolchildren, the beneficial psychological effects of such foods were confirmed. The study considered many different aspects of mental health too, including general wellbeing, emotions, stress, behavioural difficulties and problems, and symptoms of depression or depression combined with anxiety.

Confirming the psychological benefits of fruit and veg

Last month, another study added to the growing dataset of the mental benefits fruit and veg can provide children. In first-of-its-kind research for the UK, the relationship between fruit and veg intake and the mental health of schoolchildren was investigated. The study found that children who had five or more servings of fruit and vegetables daily scored highest in terms of their mental wellbeing – a correlation that was even stronger in secondary school students. The mental wellbeing of those children who ate little or no vegetables was similar to the mental wellbeing of children who lived in troubled homes where they experienced violence or arguing on a daily or almost daily scale.

The quality of meals also impacted wellbeing. A traditional breakfast provided better wellbeing results among students than those who had a snack or drink for breakfast. At the bottom of the wellbeing results were secondary schoolchildren who had energy drinks for breakfast, even surpassing children who had no breakfast at all.

A damning context

Although the core conclusion of the study certainly brings some food for thought (pun intended), the peripheral information and the context that surrounds it is perhaps what we should be focusing on more.

Of the over 1200 primary school children and 7500 secondary school children surveyed in the study, just 1 in 4 were consuming their recommended quantity of fruits and vegetables. In general too, there were a surprising number of young people with unusual eating habits anyway: 1 in 10 primary school students and more than 1 in 5 secondary school students had no breakfast at all, while 1 in 10 secondary students didn’t eat lunch.

Considering the 5-a-day guidance has been in play for 18, going on 19 years now, these figures are surprising. Surely, with so much public awareness and clinical evidence highlighting the benefits fruit and veg can provide, more young people should be fitting them into their daily diets? So, exactly what is the underlying cause of these findings?

The elephant in the room: food insecurity

One of the biggest set of drivers for any form of inequality are social issues. And for children from a more disadvantaged background or from a family where unemployment is present, food insecurity is a potent problem.

According to data published in March, roughly 8% of all UK households currently experience ‘low’ or ‘very low’ food security. That means that almost 1 in 10 of us are struggling to make ends meet financially to maintain a healthy amount of food. For those households in receipt of Universal Credit, this figure was more that 5-times higher at 43%.

Table of food security status in UK households in 2019/20
UK households by state support receipt and household food security status, 2019/20. Source: Family Resources Survey 2019/20.

Now, living in a household with low or very low food security does not mean for definite that fruit and veg are not part of a child’s diet. But the likelihood of a child from such a household not receiving enough fruit and veg is going to be high. And, with what we know about how a lack of sufficient food or high-quality meal options can result in psychological stress, aggression, anxiety, depression, and anti-social behaviour, it becomes clear that food insecurity is something we desperately need to address.

What can be done?

Schools and the government can take active steps to reduce the effect of food insecurity on students. Water fountains and taps can be made readily available, while healthy food options could be subsidised to make them more attractive options at any school cafeteria. There’s always the case for more and improved education about nutrition and healthy eating habits too.

But, even with these measures in place, the problem will always boil down to families having enough money to purchase fruit and veg in the first place. Around 6 million UK residents were receiving Universal Credit at the beginning of this year, and in England alone, roughly 40% of claimants were also employed, putting into perspective just how tight people’s budgets are right now. Combined with the recent decision to end the £20 Universal Credit uplift, it feels like the 5-a-day guidance – and the mental health benefits it can bring – is becoming a more and more unachievable goal for many families. So, the question must be asked: how can we ensure young people can access enough fruit and veg to reap the mental health benefits they provide?


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