Country – Singapore
The Healthy Youth Committee (HY-Com) is an inter-agency workgroup set up in 2006 to promote the health and well-being of the children and youth in Singapore. Led by the Ministry of Education, and presently chaired by Senior Parliamentary Secretary of Education Mr Hawazi Daipi, it constitutes key agencies involved in promoting the health of our children and youth, such as the Health Promotion Board, the Singapore Sports Council, as well as professional organizations such as the Diabetic Society of Singapore and the Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association.
The HY-Com focuses its work on the children and youth at various ages, from pre-schoolers to teenagers. Some of the committee’s activities include developing strategies to manage childhood obesity through promoting healthy eating and physical activity in schools, as well as promoting the importance of mental health through mental health literacy programs.
Every two years, the HY-Com also organizes the Educating for Health Conference to showcase the health promotion efforts of agencies, educators and the youth. The 3rd Educating for Health conference was held in November 2011, with a focus on mental wellness. Speakers included health professionals and educators engaged in promoting mental health.
Nutrition and Mental Health
During this conference, Ms Gladys Wong, chief dietitian of the Khoo teck Puat Hospital, Singapore and member of SNDA, presented a talk entitled “Nutrition and Mental Well-being - Are We What We Eat?” In her presentation, Ms Wong highlighted the importance of healthy eating for mental health, especially for the youth.
|Ms Gladys Wong speaking on nutrition and mental well-being.
Healthy eating is commonly linked to better physical health, but a more nutritionally balanced diet may also reflect better mental health. A study by Jacka et. al. (2010) showed that a diet high in processed, fried and sugary foods was positively associated with psychological symptoms like depression and anxiety in adult women. In another study by Fang and Veugelers (2008), it was found that healthy eating and exercise not only prevents overweight and chronic diseases, it also improves school performance and self-esteem in 10-11 year olds. As the number of overweight children in Singapore increases, educators need to pay more attention to the food that children are eating in school. To support the schools in promoting healthy eating, the Health Promotion Board and the Ministry of Education initiated the Healthy Eating in Schools Program, where dietitians and nutritionists work with canteen vendors to ensure that meals are nutritionally balanced.
Breakfast has always been considered to be the most important meal of the day, to kick-start the body’s metabolism. Timlin et. al. (2008) showed that children who skipped breakfast had higher body weight than those who ate breakfast. In addition, breakfast has been shown to correlate with better mood and behavior and higher scholastic performance in children, making breakfast even more important for their mental well-being. Unfortunately, in Singapore, school starts as early as 7.30am, resulting in children to skip breakfast (Ho, 2010). Some schools have encouraged breakfast by starting classes later, or providing students with a nutritious snack before school. Despite such measures, the educators who were present at the talk commented that children still skip breakfast, possibly because they do not recognize its importance. These students may benefit from nutritional education on the benefits of eating breakfast.
Parents play a key role in setting healthy eating habits and providing nutritionally balanced meals for children. Singaporean parents also look towards “brain foods” to improve their child’s cognitive function and academic performance. For example, omega-3s like Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) have been shown to aid brain development in infants, thus many parents give their children DHA and EPA supplements. However, the NEMO study group (2007) found that DHA+EPA supplementation improved memory, but did not improve overall intelligence in healthy children. Ms Wong cautioned that, while studies have found that nutrients can be linked to brain function, we ultimately eat food, not nutrients. It is more important for parents to focus on balanced meals that provide a variety of vitamins and minerals.
In summary, Ms Wong concluded that nutrition affects mental health both directly and indirectly. The agencies in HY-Com have made commendable efforts in improving the nutritional status of the children in Singapore. Nevertheless, continuous effort is needed in educating and empowering youth with nutritional knowledge for optimal physical and mental health.
Wang, F. and Veugelers, P.J. “Self-esteem and cognitive development in the era of the childhood obesity epidemic.” Obesity Reviews, 2008; 9:615-623.
Ho, T. F. "Prevention and management of obesity in children and adolescents – the Singapore experience." Childhood Obesity Prevention. Ed. Jennifer A. O’Dea, Michael Eriksen. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2020. 240 - 248.
Jacka, F.N. et al. “Association of Western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women.” Am J Psychiatr, 2010;167(3):305-11
The NEMO Study Group. “Effect of a 12-mo micronutrient intervention on learning and memory in well-nourished and marginally nourished school-aged children: 2 parallel, randomized, placebo-controlled studies in Australia and Indonesia.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2007; 84(3): 1082-1093
Timlin, M.T. “Breakfast Eating and Weight Change in a 5-Year Prospective Analysis of Adolescents: Project EAT (Eating Among Teens)” Pediatrics, 2008; 121 (3): e638 -e645