Eating fruit and vegetables is associated with better mental health for children, new research suggests.

Children who ate five or more portions of fruit and vegetables per day had the highest scores for mental wellbeing, according to a study by academics at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School.

Their findings, which are published in the peer-reviewed BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health journal, also found higher rates of wellbeing among secondary school students in particular.

The study, which analysed data from almost 9,000 children in 500 schools across Norfolk, is the first to investigate the link between fruit and vegetable consumption among schoolchildren and mental wellbeing.

Participants self-reported their dietary choices and took part in mental wellbeing tests that assessed cheerfulness, relaxation and positive interpersonal relationships.

The study also considered other factors affecting children, such as their home environment and adverse childhood experiences.

The results found that only a quarter of secondary-school children and 28 per cent of primary-school children reported eating the recommended five-a-day fruit and vegetables.

More than one in five secondary students and one in 10 primary students didn’t eat breakfast, while more than one in 10 secondary students didn’t eat lunch – while just under one in 10 of those surveyed reported not eating any fruits or vegetables.

Study author Dr Richard Hayhoe said: “This is of concern, and likely to affect not only academic performance at school but also physical growth and development.

“Another interesting thing that we found was that nutrition had as much or more of an impact on wellbeing as factors such as witnessing regular arguing or violence at home.”

He added: “Among secondary school children in particular, there was a really strong link between eating a nutritious diet, packed with fruit and vegetables, and having better mental wellbeing.”

Lead researcher Professor Ailsa Welch, from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We know that poor mental wellbeing is a major issue for young people and is likely to have long-term negative consequences.

“While the links between nutrition and physical health are well understood, until now, not much has been known about whether nutrition plays a part in children’s emotional wellbeing.

Prof Welch added: “As a potentially modifiable factor at an individual and societal level, nutrition represents an important public health target for strategies to address childhood mental wellbeing.”

The researchers concluded that public health strategies and school policies should be revised to ensure that all children have access to good quality nutrition before and during school.