Processed food diet in early childhood may lower subsequent IQ

February 7, 2011, British Medical Journal

A diet, high in fats, sugars, and processed foods in early childhood may lower IQ, while a diet packed full of vitamins and nutrients may do the opposite, suggests research published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The authors base their findings on participants in the Avon of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which is tracking the long term health and wellbeing of around 14,000 children born in 1991 and 1992.

Parents completed questionnaires, detailing the types and frequency of the food and drink their children consumed when they were 3, 4, 7 and 8.5 years old.

Three were identified: "processed" high in fats and sugar intake; "traditional" high in meat and ; and "health conscious" high in salad, fruit and vegetables, rice and pasta. Scores were calculated for each pattern for each child.

IQ was measured using a validated test (the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) when they were 8.5 years old. In all, complete data were available for just under 4,000 children.

The results showed that after taking account of potentially influential factors, a predominantly processed food at the age of 3 was associated with a lower IQ at the age of 8.5, irrespective of whether the diet improved after that age. Every 1 point increase in dietary pattern score was associated with a 1.67 fall in IQ.

On the other hand, a healthy diet was associated with a higher IQ at the age of 8.5, with every 1 point increase in dietary pattern linked to a 1.2 increase in IQ. Dietary patterns between the ages of 4 and 7 had no impact on IQ.

The authors say that these findings, although modest, are in line with previous ALSPAC research showing an association between diet and later behaviour and school performance.

"This suggests that any cognitive/behavioural effects relating to eating habits in early childhood may well persist into later childhood, despite any subsequent changes (including improvements) to dietary intake," they say.

The brain grows at its fastest rate during the first three years of life, say the authors, by way of a possible explanation for the findings, adding that other research has indicated that head growth at this time is linked to intellectual ability.

"It is possible that good nutrition during this period may encourage optimal brain growth," they suggest, advocating further research to determine the extent of the effect early diet has on intelligence.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Whether sustained or sporadic, exercise offers same reductions in death risk

March 22, 2018
For decades, Americans have been inundated with a confusing barrage of messages about how best to counteract the health risks of sedentary lifestyles: walk 10,000 steps a day; do a seven-minute workout from a phone app; flip ...

Tai chi as good as or better than aerobic exercise for managing chronic pain

March 21, 2018
The ancient martial art of tai chi has similar or greater benefits than aerobic exercise for people with the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia, finds a trial published by The BMJ today.

Study: Poor health is a less common cause of bankruptcy than commonly thought, but it brings other economic woes

March 21, 2018
A team of researchers led by an MIT economist has found that medical expenses account for roughly 4 percent of bankruptcy filings among nonelderly adults in the U.S.

Study finds bad sleep habits start early in school-age children

March 21, 2018
Bad sleep habits in children begin earlier than many experts assume. That's the takeaway from a new study led by McGill University researchers. The findings suggest that official sleep guidelines for young school children ...

Medical expansion has improved health—with one exception

March 21, 2018
While Americans debate the rising cost of health care, a new study of 30 countries over 27 years found that medical expansion has improved overall health - with one major exception.

Forgetting details, getting the gist may prompt false memories in older adults

March 21, 2018
Older adults often complain about forgetting, but Penn State psychologists suggest that another problem may be misremembering.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 08, 2011
If your mom:

1) Ate well and avoided smoking/alcohol during pregnancy
2) Breastfed you
3) Read to you
4) Fed you a healthy diet when you were growing

Give her a goddamn phonecall and tell her you love her, because without those advantages you might be at the bar getting in drunken fights right now instead of reading a science website.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.