A new study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suggests that mothers who eat junk food during pregnancy had a higher risk of giving birth to children with behavioral problems. The study also suggests that children who have an unhealthy diet during the first years of life have more often feelings of anxiety, depression, anger and aggression. Researchers at Deakin University, together with Norwegian researchers have established for the first time a clear relationship between maternal diet during pregnancy and the child’s diet in early life, and mental health of the offspring.
Associate Professor Felice Jacka, lead author of the study, explained that they knew that nutrition in early life and the mother’s diet during pregnancy can influence physical health of offspring and their risk of heart disease or diabetes, for example. But this is the first time that a study establishes an association between diet and mental health. These results are important because studies show that anxiety disorders and depression are among the leading causes of disability in the world. Newer studies have shown that nutrition and diet are among the factors that influence mental health and adult behavior. However, no study so far has highlighted the impact of diet during pregnancy and the first years of life on the behaviour of the offspring.
The study conducted by researchers at Deakin University’s included more than 23,000 mothers and their children, and was focused on maternal diet during pregnancy and children from 18 months to 3 years. To evaluate the behavior of children, questionnaires were completed by parents; there were assessed disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, symptoms of depression and anxiety and conduct disorders. The study results showed that pregnant women who consume junk food in larger quantities such as refined grains, sugary drinks, salty snacks, are more likely to give birth to children with behavioral problems (aggression).
The study also suggests that children who have an unhealthy diet in early life, or those who do not eat enough foods rich in nutrients such as vegetables have a higher chance of having this type of behavior. It should be noted that these associations are independent of other factors such as parental mental health or socioeconomic status. Associate Professor Jack wanted to point out that junk food not only leads to obesity, so it affects physical health but also influences our mental health. She said that there is an urgent need for governments to take note of these results and to restrict the marketing and availability of unhealthy foods.