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HEALTH| 21.01.2022

How does what they eat affect the cognitive development of children?

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Some studies suggest that a human’s intelligence is closely connected to a healthy, balanced diet.

“Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food”. When Hippocrates said these words around the 5th century BC, he made it very clear just how important food is on human health. In other words, taking care with nutrition is nothing new, nor is it a fad, rather it has been a constant throughout history.

Over the course of time, people have undertaken studies providing new data about what we should and should not eat to improve our physical and mental well-being. This research has come to the conclusion that taking healthy eating to a higher state is essential. And it has been demonstrated that what they eat affects the cognitive development of children. In other words, eating more healthily improves the intellectual capacities of little ones.


Better cognitive development in children

As we have mentioned, in recent years, studies have shown that there is a direct relationship between food and cognitive development in the first years of life.

This was the conclusion reached by the study entitled Early life multiple exposures and child cognitive function: A multi-centric birth cohort study in six European countries undertaken and published by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health. It obtained data from almost 1,300 children aged between six and eleven, spread across six European countries: United Kingdom, France, Spain, Greece, Lithuania and Norway.

In performing this exhaustive work, researchers analyzed 87 environmental factors to which children were exposed both in the womb and over the course of their infancy.

In terms of the results, according to one of the authors, Jordi Júlvez, the association between food and cognitive development may be due to the fact that “healthy diets, including an organic diet are richer in the nutrients required by the brain than fast food, such as fatty acids, vitamins and antioxidants, meaning that when combined, they promote cognitive functions during infancy”. In contrast, the worst results obtained in the intelligence tests performed were in children who often ate fast food, experienced overcrowding in the home and tobacco smoke during infancy.

So, the main conclusion was that a healthy diet can help to increase intelligence and improve brain performance.


Higher IQ

The study by the Barcelona Global Health Institute (Spain) is not the first to focus on food and infancy. In England, almost 4,000 children aged between three and eight were involved in a study that concluded that those eating ultraprocessed food had a lower IQ. In fact, the study asserted that food was more important than the family’s socioeconomic status.

It also highlighted the importance of breastfeeding in the brain development of babies, warning that, if afterwards, ultraprocessed food and food high in sugars were abused, breastfeeding would have a limited impact on subsequent brain development.


Intelligence in adult life

A third study in relation to this topic is also worth particular mention. It was coordinated by Aryeh D. Stein, Professor of Public Health at Emory University in the USA.

The most important aspect of the study is that it looked at 1,448 children between 2002 and 2004, reaching the conclusion that people who had eaten healthily during their infant years were also more intelligent in adulthood. In other words, not only during their development, but for the rest of their lives.

Published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, this study used two groups of Guatemalan children as a reference, distinguishing between those who consumed milk with a high protein content and those who regularly consumed sugar and carbohydrates.

The results revealed that the first group did not only have higher levels of energy, but they also had higher intellectual, comprehension and cognitive skills.

Another study performed on school-age children highlighted that the better their dietary habits, the better their performance, emphasizing the importance of the meals served at education institutions where many children have lunch every day.


So, why is food so important during childhood?

On the one hand, because in addition to helping their bodies to grow healthier and stronger and for their cognitive development to be greater, food affects the way many young people behave, as according to research performed by the OEA (Office of Education, Science and Technology at the OEA and the World Bank), behavioral problems are also associated with this development.

And on the other hand, brain development in the first months and years of a child’s life is worth particular mention. It has been demonstrated that up to 80% of an adult’s abilities are developed during the first one thousand days of their lives, emphasizing the importance of those first months on the person’s subsequent development. What’s more, between 50% and 75% of the energy consumed by babies is dedicated to brain development.

This makes having the right nutrients to satisfy such a huge demand for energy essential. In fact, a rich and healthy diet in the first three years of life, in addition to an environment that is smoke-free and free from other unhealthy factors, will help children to develop their cognitive skills to a satisfactory level, which will have an impact on their adult life.