Fast food has been blamed for many health problems. It can now add mental health to the list, according to a University in Melbourne, Australia study. Focusing on prenatal and early childhood exposure to junk food, the researchers found a link with behavioral and emotional problems later in life. Other studies have found links between poor diet and mental health issues, but this was the first to look at maternal nutrition in regards to prenatal and early postnatal mental health.
Lead by Felice Jacka, Ph.D., who has been building a body of research on mood and food, the researchers found that the children who were exposed the earliest (before birth and early childhood) to junk food were at the highest risk of developing anxiety and depression. In addition to the exposure to junk food, the authors also looked at how a lack of healthy food contributed to that risk as well.
Involving data on over 23,000 women and their children from the Mother and Child Cohort Study, the authors sent questionnaires to mothers at 17 weeks of pregnancy, before birth and at intervals after (at 6 months, 1.5 years, 3 years, 5 years). The questionnaire, a 225-item food frequency questionnaire (FFQ), screened for the dietary habits and intake of supplements in mothers at 4 to 5 months of pregnancy. The children’s diet was based on a 36-item FFQ which asked about types of foods and drinks were ingested on a daily basis.
“This study comes from the largest cohort study in the world and is the first to suggest that poor diet in both pregnant women and their children is a risk factor for children’s mental health problems,” said Felice Jacka, Ph.D., lead author of the study.
The participants were then categorized into two dietary patterns: a health pattern, marked by high intake of vegetables, fruit and cereals, and an unhealthy pattern, marked by high amounts of processed meats, refined cereals and sweet drinks. The authors then used a psychological test to look for signs of assessing internalizing problems such as anxiety and depression, as well as externalizing behaviors such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
Malnutrition and behavioral health
In addition to higher levels of anxiety and depression, the findings revealed that pregnant moms who ate unhealthy food were significantly more likely to have children with behavioral problems such as tantrums and aggression. The reasons children who ate more junk food earlier in life were more likely to develop problems was due to a lack of nutrient-rich foods during the first few years of life. Both unhealthy food and a decreased intake of nutrient-rich food in early childhood were related to higher internalizing and externalizing behaviors in young children, which are early markers of later mental health problems.
With the current age of onset of anxiety disorders being only six years old and 13 years old for depression, the results of this study have a profound impact on the fast food choices that parents make for their children. Who knows, perhaps 10 or 20 years down the line there may be a large decrease in mental health disorders because of this information; but of course information is only helpful when it is acted upon.