The brain grows most rapidly during the first three years of a child’s life, and so it stands to reason that the foods a child eats during that time are of utmost importance. A recent study confirms this. The long term health and well being of around 14,000 children born in 1991 and 1992 is being followed by a group known as ALSPAC, or Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. All together, data was compiled for just over 4,000 children.
Parents were given questionnaires to complete, requesting documentation of the types and frequency of the food and drink their children consumed when they were 3, 4, 7 and 8.5 years old. Overall, three basic 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). The I.Q. of all participants was measured using the standard Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children when they were 8 years old. Numerical scores were calculated for each child.
Comparing children from differing socio-economic backgrounds is often tricky and comes under scrutiny, but the authors of the study took special care. “We have controlled for maternal education, for maternal social class, age, whether they live in council housing, life events, anything going wrong, the home environment, with books and use of television and things like that,” said Pauline Emmett, one of the authors of the study.
After allowing for differing factors, children who were fed the predominantly processed food diet up until the age of 3 were found to have a lower I.Q. at the age of 8.5, even if the child’s diet improved after that age. Every 1 point increase in dietary pattern score was associated with a 1.67 fall in I.Q. Children who scored for a “health conscious” diet were found to have higher I.Q.’s at the age of 8.5, with every 1 point increase in dietary pattern linked to a 1.2 increase in I.Q. Again, a change in diet between the ages of 4 and 7 had no impact on IQ.
Although the numbers are not enormous, this pattern confirms earlier ALSPAC research which showed a connection between early childhood diet and later school performance.
As a possible explanation for the findings, Emmett indicated that head growth during the early years is linked to intellectual ability. “It is possible that good nutrition during this period may encourage optimal brain growth”. She said further study was needed to see whether this apparent impact on I.Q. persisted as the children got older. Asked why junk food had such an effect, she suggested a diet that was comprised primarily of processed foods could lack vital vitamins and elements for cerebral development at a key stage in early childhood.