Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Diet Influences Mental Health in Children

By Stephen Luntz

Separate studies have found a connection between diet and mental health in children.

Both studies involved Australian researchers working with large health studies from other countries.

A/Prof Felice Jacka of Deakin University’s Impact Strategic Research Centre used the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study to find a relationship between unhealthy diets during pregnancy and children’s mental health.

“We’ve known for quite some time that very early life nutrition, including the nutrition received while the child is in utero, is related to physical health outcomes in children – their risk for later heart disease or diabetes, for example. But this is the first study indicating that diet is also important to mental health outcomes in children,” Jacka said.

Depression, anxiety, conduct disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at 18 months, 3 years and 5 years were compared with mothers’ diets during pregnancy and the diets of children up to that point.

Refined cereal, sweet drink and salty snack consumption during pregnancy correlated with behavioural problems such as tantrums and aggression. Children with unhealthy diets early in life were more prone to these sorts of externalising behaviours as well as internalised symptoms such as depression and anxiety. In both cases the relationship remained after controlling for socio-economic status and parental mental health.

“It is becoming even more clear that diet matters to mental health right across the age spectrum,” Jacka said. The findings were published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Meanwhile, E/Prof Mark Wahlqvist of Monash University has revealed a connection between obesity and emotional disturbance (ED) in Taiwanese children aged 6–13 in Research in Developmental Disability. Almost one-quarter (23.5%) of obese children had problems relating to their peers, compared with 14.4% among those of normal weight and 14.8% for overweight children.

“In boys we found they struggled with relationship problems and in girls it was inappropriate behaviour,” Wahlqvist said. “However, obesity doesn’t automatically mean young children will suffer from ED. Where obesity exists at the same time as psychological problems, prevalence of these problems increased as students progressed through the school grades.”

Wahlqvist hopes that early identification of the children most at risk of physical and mental health problems may offer opportunities for intervention.