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A Healthy Diet Needs to Start When You're Young

Keri St. John

Researchers have recently discovered that eating unhealthily at the age of 3 might adversely, and permanently, affect intelligence. This adds to the growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that nutrition education needs to start during early childhood.

A link between diet and intelligence?

A poor diet tends to affect the health of a child more than that of an adult, as the child's body is still developing. Eating too much fat and carbohydrates can lead to obesity, which can in turn lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and trouble sleeping. Too few vitamins can cause problems like rickets and ulcers and too much sugar can produce dental complaints. A bad diet can also create behavioral issues like ADHD, lethargy and irritability.

Today, new research suggests that having a poor diet in early childhood might also lower someone's IQ. British and Canadian scientists followed the dietary habits and long-term health of 4,000 children born in 1991 and 1992, measuring their IQ at several intervals during the study. The researchers found that having a diet high in fats, sugars and processed foods at the age of 3 was associated with a lower IQ score by the age of 8.5. This was the case irrespective of whether the child's diet improved in later years. Conversely, the researchers found that having a good diet at the age of 3 was linked to a higher subsequent IQ score. The brain is known to grow at its fastest rate during the first 3 years of life, and previous research has already indicated a link between head growth and intellectual ability. Scientists now believe that the brain needs good nutrition during this period to develop optimally.

The researchers stress that they have only found an association between diet and intelligence and not a direct link. Other factors like parenting, genetics and income can also influence a child's IQ, and more investigation needs to be done to determine whether diet has a direct or indirect effect on intelligence. However, this study is in keeping with previous research establishing a link between early childhood diet and school performance, and indicates that there may be more reasons to make sure your child eats well than just his physical well-being.

Being a positive influence

It's not always easy to get children to eat what you'd like them to. Factors known to influence a child's diet include government policies regulating school meals, peer pressure and advertising. And children learn quickly. A recent study carried out on preschoolers (ages 3 to 5) showed that they develop a taste preference very early on, generally for fatty, salty or sugary foods, and that there is a clear association between the development of the children's palate preferences and their emerging brand awareness. It also demonstrated that children now often turn to condiments - and calories - to add flavour and ensure that the food meets their taste preferences. The researchers concluded that families should focus on reducing their child's consumption of junk food and increasing his consumption of nutritious food at an early age to positively influence the development of their child's taste preferences.

Happily, the biggest influence on a child's diet may be his mother. A recent study demonstrated that a mother's diet and her attitude towards her child's diet has a direct impact on her child's eating habits. The findings revealed that a child was less likely to eat the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables if his mother did not. They also revealed that when a mother viewed her child as a picky eater, that child's intake of fruit and vegetables also decreased, possibly because the mother was less likely to be strict about making her child eat his greens.

Parents having problems getting their children to eat healthily should not admit defeat. Previous research has shown that a child needs to eat something around 10 times before being able determine whether they like it or not. They may even need to see the fruit or vegetable 10 times before they are actually prepared to try it. However, studies have also shown that repeated exposure builds taste preferences, so that if a parent repeatedly serves the same foods, like beans or broccoli, their child will acquire a liking for them. Patience, resisting the urge to prepare alternative meals and leading by example are the keys to success.


Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 2011, Are dietary patterns in childhood associated with IQ at 8 years of age?

Appetite, 2011, Alternative thinking about starting points of obesity. Development of child taste preferences

Public Health Nursing, 2010, Populations at Risk Across the Lifespan, Case Studies, Low-Income African American and Non-Hispanic White Mother's Self-Efficacy, Picky Eater Perception, and Toddler Fruit and Vegetable Consumption

Health Disclaimer. Copyright ©2011. Published with permission.