The food your child eats doesn't only affect her physical body. A recent study shows that a healthy diet makes for happier kids.

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illustration of cchild with healthy foods on the brain and unhealthy foods floating around
Credit: Illustration by Lucia Calfapietra

There's a lot of focus on what a nutritious diet can do for children's physical health, like proper growth, stronger bones, and even a lower risk for chronic disease in adulthood. But what about their mental health? A new study finds that what kids eat can have a big impact on how they feel socially and emotionally too.

The research, published in BMC Public Health, studied more than 7,000 European children ages 2-9. Researchers measured the children's diets based on whether they were following nutrition guidelines such as limiting intake of added sugars, getting fruits and veggies every day, eating whole grains, and consuming fish 2-3 times per week. They also looked at four indicators of well-being: self-esteem, parent relations, emotional problems, and peer problems. Then they followed up two years later.

What they found: A better diet at baseline was associated with better emotional wellbeing two years later, including higher self-esteem and fewer emotional and peer problems. This held true regardless of the child's weight and economic status. The reverse was also true. Kids with higher self-esteem were more likely to be eating a healthy diet two years later.

Good parent relations were associated with eating fruits and veggies daily, fewer emotional problems were linked to a lower fat intake, and fewer peer problems were related to consuming fruits and veggies.

So what's at work? Researchers have a few guesses. They speculate that certain foods, such as fish and whole grains, could be good for psychological well-being—and that nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids found in fish or vitamins and minerals in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains could have a direct positive effect on mental health. Eating a healthy diet may also improve overall health, impacting things like dental health and sleep, which could boost emotional health too.

It's also possible that a healthy diet may help kids cope with the stresses and challenges in life—and that kids with good emotional health don't tend to use unhealthy food as a coping mechanism.

Though the researchers say the study doesn't prove direct cause-and-effect between diet and emotional well-being, it does suggest there's a connection between what kids eat and how they feel. The U.K. Mental Health Foundation calls diet an "underestimated" factor in mental health.

Here are the U.S. nutrition guidelines for kids ages 4-8:

Fruit: 1-1.5 cups per day

Vegetables: 1.5 cups per day

Whole Grains: At least half of grain servings should be whole grains

Fish: Two servings per week

Added sugar: No more than 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) per day

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.