8 February 2011

Processed food cripples young brain

by Kate Melville

A new study appearing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health has found that infants with a higher intake of processed foods during the first three years of their lives had lower IQs. More surprising is the discovery that the cognitive effects relating to these eating habits in early childhood appear to persist into later life - despite any subsequent improvements to dietary intake.

The study uses data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which tracks long term health and wellbeing of around 14,000 children born in 1991 and 1992. In the study, three dietary patterns were identified: "processed" high in fats and sugar intake; "traditional" high in meat and vegetable intake; and "health conscious" high in salad, fruit and vegetables, rice and pasta. IQ was measured using the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children when they were 8.5 years old.

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

Interestingly, dietary patterns between the ages of 4 and 7 had no impact on IQ.

"This suggests that any cognitive/behavioral effects relating to eating habits in early childhood may well persist into later childhood, despite any subsequent changes [including improvements] to dietary intake," note the researchers.

The brain grows at its fastest during the first three years of life; the researchers hypothesize, adding that other studies have indicated that head growth during this period is linked to intellectual ability. "It is possible that good nutrition during this period may encourage optimal brain growth," the study notes.

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Source: British Medical Journal