New research from Deakin University in Victoria has found links between the consumption of highly processed junk food while pregnant to behavioural problems in children.
The findings demonstrate that young children who consume a diet high in salt, sugar and fat are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and mood swings than children who eat healthy foods.
The study, which was part of the ongoing Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study, gathered dietary information from 23,000 mothers during pregnancy, followed by detailed information on their children’s diets at 18 months and three years.
The results revealed that diet during pregnancy played a role in a child’s mental health development and also that young children who ate unhealthy foods, or did not consume enough nutrient rich foods, displayed concerning behaviours.
Lead researcher, Professor Felice Jacka said that the study is the first of its kind show a clear link between diet during pregnancy, early childhood and 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," said Jacka.
"But this is the first study indicating that diet is also important to mental health outcomes in children."
Jacka also said that additional factors such as socioeconomic circumstances and the metal health of parents – which remained independent of the study – could also explain the link between consumption of junk food and behavioural issues.
“It is becoming even more clear that diet matters to mental health right across the age spectrum,” she said.
“These new findings suggest that unhealthy and ‘junk’ foods may have an impact on the risk for mental health problems in children and they add to the growing body of evidence on the impact of unhealthy diets on the risk for depression, anxiety and even dementia.
"There is an urgent need for governments everywhere to take note of the evidence and amend food policy to restrict the marketing and availability of unhealthy food products to the community," she said.