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Junk Food Linked to Young Children’s Mental Health Problems

Researchers at Deakin University recently published research linking poor diet in pregnant women and in their young children, with children’s higher levels of behavioural and emotional problems. The investigators studied the diets of over 23,000 pregnant  women and their children, and concluded after a five year  follow-up, that early exposure to what is commonly known as  ‘junk food’, increases the risk of  poor mental health.

Led by Associate Professor Felice Jacka, researchers investigated the pre- and post-partum diets of women who participated in the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study. During the first four to five months of pregnancy,  women were categorised as having a healthy pattern of eating (high intake of vegetables, fruit, high-fibre cereals and vegetable oils) or an unhealthy pattern (high intake of processed meat products, refined cereals, sweet drinks, and salty snacks). Children’s diet at 18 months and 3 years was assessed for intake of foods and drinks such as dairy products, cereal-based porridge and fruit juice. A Child Behaviour Checklist was used for those children from 18 months to five years of age, to assess anxiety, depression, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder.

The findings, reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suggest that mothers who have an unhealthy diet during pregnancy have children with more behavioural problems such as tantrums and aggression. Also, children who eat more unhealthy foods and not enough nutrient-rich foods in the first years of their life, show more attentional and behavioural problems, as well as higher rates of anxiety and depression. These conclusions were made even after other potentially related factors such as socio-economic circumstances and mental health of the parents were accounted for.

In a media release, Dr Jacka said, “We’ve known for some time that very early life nutrition, including the nutrition received while the child is in utero, is related to physical health outcomes in children – their risk for later heart disease of diabetes for example. But this is the first study indicating that diet may also be important to mental health outcomes in children.”

And while previous research has linked diet quality to the mental health of adolescents and adults, the impact of early diet on early mental health outcomes was previously unexplored.  These findings make it “even more clear that diet matters to mental health right across the age spectrum”, said Dr Jacka.

 Given that Dr Jacka and her team collected data about behaviours in children that are established early markers for later mental health problems, Dr Jacka explained that, “These new findings … add to the growing body  of evidence on the impact of unhealthy diets on the risk for depression, anxiety and even dementia.”

 Image from freedigitalphotos.net