This Daily Habit Boosts Kids’ Self-Esteem (Hint: It’s Not Exercise)

Scientists in Sweden have given us reason to believe that what we feed our children may have a direct impact on their emotional well-being.

Below view of happy children embracing each other and smiling at cameraPressmaster/Shutterstock

Although we know that eating certain foods can make you smarter and less anxious, science hasn’t yet fully explored the relationship between a healthy diet and psychological well-being in children. However, scientists at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden completed a study indicating that children with good eating habits tend to be better off emotionally. The study was published recently in the journal BMC Public Health.

Using data from an existing study (the Identification and Prevention of Dietary- and Lifestyle-Induced Health Effects in Children and Infants Study, which is aimed at preventing obesity in children) of 7,675 European children between the ages of two and nine, the researchers looked at:

  • the children’s scores on the “Healthy Dietary Adherence Score” (“HDAS”). This measures adherence to what’s considered healthy dietary guidelines in the countries in which the children resided, as observed by the children’s parents;
  • parental observations of the children’s psychological well-being (including self-esteem, emotional health, and social life) at the outset of the study and then two years later;
  • the children’s weights at the beginning of the study and then two years later.

Crunching the numbers, the researchers found that the higher HDAS scores were associated with higher measures of psychological well-being both at the outset of the study and two years later, without regard to weight. In other words, psychological well-being was impacted by the children’s eating habits, but not by their actual weight. Specifically:

  • Eating fish two to three times per week was associated with better self-esteem and no emotional and peer problems.
  • Eating whole food products (rather than processed) was associated with no peer problems.
  • Eating fruits and vegetables was associated with better self-esteem, better parental relations, and fewer peer problems.
  • Limiting sugar and fat intake was associated with better self-esteem and fewer emotional problems.

The study authors recognize their study is subject to certain limitations, however. First, there was a tendency for children with lower HDAS scores to drop out before they could be evaluated at the two-year mark, which leaves some of the information incomplete. Second, in relying on observational data reported by parents, the study does not allow for conclusions to be made about cause and effect.

“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,” one of the study authors, Louise Arvidsson, RD, and a PhD candidate at the University of Gothenberg, told Science Daily.

Parents, you can encourage nutritious eating habits by packing these healthy lunch box foods that can boost your kid’s brainpower.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers health, fitness, yoga, and lifestyle, among other topics. An author of crime fiction, Lauren's book The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.