Why free school meals have been so important in supporting kid’s nutrition and mental health during?

Why free school meals have been so important in supporting kid’s nutrition and mental health during the lockdown and beyond?

We all know that children can have very big appetites! It can be tricky to keep up with our little ones as they grow so quickly year upon year. During this pandemic, many families have been struggling financially as the economy took a turn for the worst and there was a rise in unemployment. Free school meals have been able to help support the nutrition of many vulnerable children, which helps not only support their physical health but only their mental health. All children deserve access to healthy, wholesome meals no matter their socio-economic background. This blog aims to break down the science behind why this is so important.

Nutrition is important throughout all stages of life, however, during childhood, adolescence and pregnancy, nutritional requirements are at their greatest. This is due to the rapid growth and development that takes place during these periods. Adolescents require more nutrients than adults. This is due to gaining at least 40 percent of their adult weight and 15 percent of their adult height during their teenage years. Inadequate intake can lead to delayed sexual development and slower linear growth (Jacob and Nair 2012).

Nutrition isn’t just important for normal growth and physical development. Nutrition is essential for optimal brain development and cognitive function. Nutritional deficiencies are associated with delayed cognitive development and poor mental health status in children and adolescents (Yu et al.2020).

Food is broken down into molecules that are used to fuel our bodies and build and repair them. If a child consumes a poor diet that is high in processed foods, preservatives, free sugars and unfavourable fats, their bodies will be made up from these nutrients which can lead to suboptimal health and development (Sokal and Sokal 2011). The body will utilise whatever is available, so although it may require an essential fatty acid such as omega 3 to create healthy brain cells, if it only has a trans-fat available to do the job, it will use that. Each nutrient has a specific role within the body. If the body is consistently replacing these nutrients with sub-par replacements due to a lack of varied nutrients within the diet, then the body will not function properly, and children will not thrive and develop as they should.

Research has shown that nutrition has a strong effect on cognitive function and mental wellbeing in children (Ickes et al. 2018). This is partly due to the protective qualities certain foods exert in protecting an individual from the effects of stress.

Good fats and antioxidant foods can help protect the brain from the effects of stress.

A diet that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to help maintain synaptic (nerve cell) function and the structure of the brain and shape of the brain.

The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are:

  • fatty fish, such as sardines, tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel, and herring

  • ground flax and flaxseed oil

  • soybeans

  • oysters

  • walnuts

  • sunflower seeds

  • chia seeds

  • hemp seeds

  • Repeatedly heating vegetable oils can decrease their antioxidant activity and increase free radical production, which may lead to poor health effects.

  • Avoid overheating or burning of vegetable oils to keep their nutrient content.

Antioxidants that are beneficial to your mental wellbeing and cognitive performance:

Vitamin C - supports epithelial barrier function against pathogens and promotes the oxidant scavenging activity of the skin, thereby potentially protecting against environmental oxidative stress. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits, papaya, peppers and potato.

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble nutrient found in many foods. In the body, it acts as an antioxidant, helping to protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are compounds formed when our bodies convert the food we eat into energy. Vitamin E can be found in nuts (such as almonds, peanuts, and hazelnuts/filberts), Sunflower seeds, Green leafy vegetables (such as spinach and kale).

Anthocyanins are a type of flavonoid, a class of compounds with antioxidant effects.

Anthocyanins can be found in eggplant, grapes and berries.

The Gut-brain-axis

Secondly, the Gut-brain-axis can affect a child’s mood, brain health and cognitive function. These two organs are connected both physically and biochemically in a number of different ways. Physically through the vagus nerve, which is one of the largest nerves in the body, connecting your brain to the visceral organs of your respiratory, digestive and urinary systems. It sends signals in both directions. Neurons are nerve cells found in your brain and central nervous system that tell your body how to behave. There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain. Interestingly, your gut contains 500 million neurons, which are connected to your brain through thee vagus nerve and other nerves in your nervous system. This would explain why when we’re nervous we may need to go to the toilet, or we can have gut issues!

Your gut and brain are also connected through chemicals called neurotransmitters. There are more than 40 different neurotransmitters in the human body, however, the main neurotransmitters associated with cognitive function, mood and mental wellbeing are:

  • GABA associated with a relaxed state and reducing fear and anxiety.

  • Serotonin associated with mood and regulating a wide spectrum of cognitive, emotional, physiological and metabolic systems.

  • Dopamine associated with reward pathways and energy levels. Low levels can induce depression, feelings of boredom, apathy and loss of satisfaction.

Your gut cells and gut bacteria produce these neurotransmitters, not just your brain. 80% of Serotonin is found in your gut! So, depending what bacteria you have in your gut will have an effect on your serotonin levels and how happy you may feel. Your gut microbes also produce (GABA), which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety.

So, what foods support gut health and the gut-brain-axis?

Probiotics are live cultures that are consumed and are beneficial bacteria to add to your child’s gut flora.

Take good quality probiotics - fermented vegetables.

  • Kefir – fermented food drink.

  • Kombucha - Kombucha is a fermented, slightly alcoholic, lightly effervescent, sweetened black or green tea drink commonly consumed for its supposed health benefits.

  • Miso - s a traditional Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting soybeans with salt.

  • Sauerkraut - Sauerkraut is finely cut raw cabbage that has been fermented by various lactic acid bacteria.

  • Tempeh - tempeh is made from cooked soya beans that are then fermented in sliceable

Prebiotics - Prebiotics are compounds in food that induce the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria. They are ultimately food for the bacteria which helps them thrive.

  • Garlic

  • Onions

  • Leeks

  • Asparagus

  • Bananas

So, what foods naturally boost serotonin level?

Serotonin (5-HT) synthesis is dependent on the availability of its precursor. The amino acid L-tryptophan is converted into serotonin via 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP).

Food high is L-tryptophan include:

  • Eggs. The protein in eggs can significantly boost your blood plasma levels of tryptophan, according to recent research. ...

  • Cheese. Cheese is another great source of tryptophan. ...

  • Pineapples/kiwis ...

  • Tofu. ...

  • Salmon. ...

  • Nuts and seeds.

Foods that naturally boost GABA

GABA is the brain’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter.

Reduces the firing of neurons and sensations of feeling overwhelmed.

GABA requires B6 and a variety of amino acids to be produced so a diet rich in protein is important.

  • Foods high in B6:

  • poultry, such as chicken or turkey.

  • fish.

  • bread.

  • wholegrain cereals, such as oatmeal, wheatgerm and brown rice.

  • eggs.

  • soya beans

These foods are good to take in the evening when children need to wind down. Other foods that may boost GABA production in the body include:

  • lentils and other beans,

  • nuts including walnuts,

  • almonds and sunflower seeds,

  • citrus fruits

  • tomatoes

  • berries

  • spinach

  • broccoli

  • potatoes

  • cocoa

Foods that boost Dopamine production

  • Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt.

  • Unprocessed meats such as beef, chicken and turkey.

  • Omega-3 rich fish such as salmon and mackerel.

  • Eggs.

  • Fruit and vegetables, in particular bananas.

  • Nuts such as almonds and walnuts.

  • Dark chocolate.

The production of neurotransmitters (such as dopamine and norepinephrine – responsible for better executive functioning) and hormones within the brain also depend on water. Children's water intake increases with age. As a general rule of thumb, children aged 4 to 13 should aim to drink approximately 6-8 glasses of fluid a day, with younger children needing relatively smaller servings (NHS 2019).

We encourage ‘family style’ cooking and eating – for parents to eat the same meals as their children. Discover how you can improve your own nutrition and this will in turn have a positive effect on your entire family, by booking a Discover Your MAHAAH appointment – its more than a health check up or a medical annual check, we support you through your journey to discover your superhealth.

Disclaimer: Information in our blogs are as accurate and comprehensive as possible. This is general advice and should not be used as a substitute for the individual advice readers might receive from consulting their own doctor. For other medical professionals reading, it is advised to use your own clinical judgement when interpreting the information and deciding how to best apply this to the treatment of their patients. Please see our terms and conditions page for further information on this.


Jacob. J. A, & Nair. M.K. (2012) Protein and micronutrient supplementation in complementing pubertal growth. Indian J Pediatr. Suppl 1:S84-91. doi: 10.1007/s12098-011-0430-0. Epub 2011 Jun 1. PMID: 21630075.

Yu. H.J, Li. F, Hu Y.F., Li. C.F, Yuan. S., Song. Y., Zheng. M, & Gong. J, He. Q.Q. (2020) Improving the Metabolic and Mental Health of Children with Obesity: A School-Based Nutrition Education and Physical Activity Intervention in Wuhan, China. Nutrients. ;12(1):194. doi: 10.3390/nu12010194. PMID: 31936767; PMCID: PMC7019828.

Sokal, K., & Sokal, P. (2011). Earthing the human body influences physiologic processes. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 17(4), 301–308. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2010.0687

Ickes, S. B., Wu, M., Mandel, M. P., & Roberts, A. C. (2018). Associations between social support, psychological well-being, decision making, empowerment, infant and young child feeding, and nutritional status in Ugandan children ages 0 to 24 months. Maternal & child nutrition, 14(1), e12483. https://doi.org/10.1111/mcn.12483

19 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All