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A healthy diet linked to a kid's happiness and self-esteem

9Coach logo 9Coach 18/12/2017 Sam Downing
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A study of thousands of European children has teased out a link between a healthy diet and higher self-esteem, fewer emotional problems, and stronger relationships with other kids.

“We found that in young children aged two to nine years there is an association between adherence to healthy dietary guidelines and better psychological wellbeing," said the study's lead author, Dr Louise Arvidsson from Sweden's University of Gothenburg, in a statement.

"Our findings suggest that a healthy diet can improve wellbeing in children.”

Arvidsson and her team drew on data from IDEFICS, a long-running investigation into how the health and weight of children from eight European countries (Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Spain and Sweden) is impacted by their diet and lifestyle.

Almost 8,000 children were assessed on their "psychosocial wellbeing" and their diets, then again two years later.

The kids were given a healthy dietary adherence score (HDAS) based on how closely they followed five guidelines: limiting sugar, limiting fat (particularly "bad" saturated fat), preferencing whole meal over refined grains, eating 400-500g of fruits and vegetables a day, and fish 2-3 times a week.

A high HDAS was linked to higher self-esteem and fewer emotional and peer problems (factors such as bullying and trouble making friends) two years later; conversely, high self-esteem was linked to an improved HDAS.

Although IDEFICS specifically explores the risks of being overweight and obese in childhood, this study found a link between HDAS and wellbeing in 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," Arvidsson commented.

The study has some big limitations: firstly, children who started with poor dietary and wellbeing scores were more likely to drop out of the study, muddling the final data; secondly, it relied on self-reported data from parents, and self-reported data can be unreliable.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the study is observational — meaning it observes a link between a child's diet and wellbeing, and doesn't prove one directly causes the other.

"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," concluded Arvidsson.

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