News in Science | Friday, 30 August 2013 | by Dani Cooper
Poor diet during pregnancy can lead to an increased risk of mental health problems in children, Australian research shows.
And new mums cannot relax after they give birth with the study also showing a link between unhealthy early childhood diets and increased symptoms of anxiety and depression among toddlers.
Lead reseacher Associate Professor Felice Jacka, of Deakin University in Geelong, says the results highlight the need for government policies to rein in consumption of processed food and beverages.
"We've known for quite a while that early life nutrition, including in the womb, is linked to later risk of disease such as heart disease and diabetes," Jacka says.
"And now this data suggests it is also linked to mental health outcomes."
The findings are based on information collected from more than 23,000 mothers and their children participating in the Mother and Child Cohort Study in Norway.
The researchers gathered information on mothers' diets during pregnancy and their children's diets at 18 months and three years.
The mental health of the children was assessed via parent reporting of symptoms of depression, anxiety and conduct disorders.
The study suggests mothers who eat more unhealthy foods such as refined cereals, sweet drinks and salty snacks have children with more behavioural problems including tantrums and aggression.
Jacka says the study also reveals the impact of diet during a child's first years of life.
Children who eat more unhealthy foods and those who do not eat enough nutrient-rich foods, like vegetables, also exhibit behaviours that are early markers for later mental health problems, she says.
Same around the world
Jacka says the findings, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, are universal.
While 'healthy' diets in countries as gastronomically diverse as Norway, Spain, Japan and Australia look "very different, what they have at their core is a high intake of nutrient-dense foods", adds Jacka.
Unhealthy foods however are the same regardless of geography.
"They are very similar because they are mass produced and they are available everywhere," she says.
Jacka says depression is the second-largest burden of disability across the globe.
"This shows us a very real link between mental health and junk food," she says.
"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."
Eating for better mental health
As a follow-up to the work, Jacka is now involved in the world's first trial to determine whether improving the diet of people with depression will improve their mental health.
The trial, based in Geelong and Melbourne, has been operating for the past eight months, but Jacka says the team is still seeking volunteers.