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Junk Food Detrimental to Children’s IQ

23 April 2011

It’s well known that breastfeeding and other nutritional factors are associated with increased IQ in childhood.  There appears to be little known about the effects of the diet in early childhood on general intelligence later in life.  A new UK prospective study found that toddlers who eat junk food are less likely to be academic high-flyers when they grow older.

A large UK study of 3966 children, based on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, uses data on children’s diet reported by parents in food-frequency questionnaires at 3, 4, 7 and 8.5 years of age.  Dietary patterns were identified using Principal-components Analysis (PCA), the most popular data-driven method of obtaining dietary patterns.  The PCA scores were computed at each age.  IQ was assessed using the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children at 8.5 years.

After statistic adjustment, the ‘processed’ (food with high fat and sugar content, processed or convenience food) pattern of diet at 3 years of age was negatively associated with IQ assessed at 8.5 years of age – a 1 SD increase in dietary pattern score was associated with a 1.67 point decrease in IQ.  The ‘health-conscious’ (salad, fruit, rice, pasta, fish,) pattern at 8.5 years was positively associated with IQ – a 1 SD increase in pattern score led to a 1.20 point increase in IQ.

Conclusion: There is evidence that a poor diet associated with high fat, sugar and processed food content in early childhood may be associated with small reductions in IQ in later childhood, while a healthy diet, associated with high intakes of nutrient rich foods may be associated with small increases in IQ.

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

Brain grows fastest during the first three years of life, with studies showing head growth in this time was associated with cognitive outcome.  Diet that was largely processed could lack vital vitamins and elements for cerebral development at a key stage in early childhood. “A junk food diet is not conducive to good brain development,” as pointed out by study co-author Pauline Emmett, of the School of Social and Community Medicine at the University of Bristol, UK

Northstone K et al. 2011. J Epidemiol Community Health. doi:10.1136/jech.2010.111955

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