Women who consume a lot of junk food during pregnancy have a higher risk of having children with behavioral problems, suggests a study by Deakin University in Australia. The findings also showed that children who do not eat a healthy diet are more aggressive, have more tantrums, and experience anxiety and depression. The study was announced on August 20, 2013, and was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Deakin University and Norwegian scientists say that this is the first time that research has confirmed a clear association between the mental health of children and the unhealthy diets of both pregnant women and children ages 18 months to five years. A healthy diet contains nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, while an unhealthy diet contains nutritionally poor foods such as sweet drinks, refined cereals, and salty snacks.
“We’ve known for quite 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 or diabetes for example,” said Associate Professor Felice Jacka, lead author and researcher with Deakin University’s IMPACT Strategic Research Centre. “But this is the first study indicating that diet is also important to mental health outcomes in children.”
The study was based on data collected from more than 23,000 mothers and their children who participated in the ongoing Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa). The parents filled out questionnaires regarding children’s symptoms such as anxiety, conduct disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and depression when the children were ages 18 months, three years and five years of age. The researchers took into account other factors that might explain the link between mental health disorders and unhealthy diets such as the parents’ mental health or socioeconomic situations.
“It is becoming even more clear that diet matters to mental health right across the age spectrum,” Jacka said. “These new findings suggest that unhealthy and ‘junk’ foods may have an impact on the risk for mental health problems in children and they add to the growing body of evidence on the impact of unhealthy diets on the risk for depression, anxiety and even dementia."
“The changes to our food systems, including the shift to more high-energy, low nutrition foods developed and marketed by the processed food industry, have led to a massive increase in obesity-related illnesses right across the globe,” said Jacka. “There is an urgent need for governments everywhere to take note of the evidence and amend food policy to restrict the marketing and availability of unhealthy food products to the community."