Young children who eat a diet of processed foods that are high in fat and sugar may have a lower IQ later in life, while those who receive proper nourishment in early childhood may gain a boost to their brain power. These are the findings of new research recently published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
The results of the analysis are based on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) involving approximately 14,000 children born in western England in 1991 and 1992. The study monitored the health and well-being of the children at ages of 3, 4, 7 and 8, including IQ measurements confirmed at age 8.5 with the use of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children.
The researchers analyzed the dietary habits of nearly 4,000 of the children participating in the ALSPAC, and identified three dietary patterns that included consumption of processed foods having high fat and sugar content, a diet of traditional foods such as meat and vegetables, and a health conscious food intake high in fruits, vegetables, rice, pasta, and salad.
The findings of the study showed that those children who were consuming a processed food diet at age 3 had a lower IQ at the age of 8.5, whether or not their diet improved after that age. For each one-point increase in dietary pattern score there was a decrease of 1.67 in IQ. However, higher IQ scores at age 8.5 were seen among children who consumed a healthy diet as three-year-olds. Each one-point increase in the dietary pattern was linked to a 1.2 increase in IQ. No impact on IQ was noted for dietary patterns between the ages of 4 and 7.
Because the researchers found that changes in children’s eating habits after age 3 made no difference in their IQ scores at a later age, they offered, “A possible explanation for this is that the brain grows at its fastest rate during the first three years of life.”
According to lead researcher Kate Northstone from the University of Bristol, “Children should be encouraged to eat healthy foods from an early age, and to avoid foods that are high in fat and sugar, as far as possible.” She also added, “We know this is important for physical growth and development, but it may also be important for mental ability."
After emphasizing the need for further research to confirm their findings, Northstone pointed out, “This study shows that early diet, beyond breastfeeding may be important—and more important than later diet—in optimizing cognitive development.” She said that the message is to encourage parents to give fresh food as much as they can.
Getting children off to a good start in life is important. Ensuring that they eat a nutritious diet and get a healthy amount of exercise can provide them with a strong foundation to build on.