Childhood nutrition has a longstanding effect on IQ

Children given more ‘fast food’ meals will grow up to have a lower IQ than those regularly given freshly cooked meals, according to a study by a researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Dr Sophie von Stumm, from Goldsmith’s department of psychology, concluded that childhood nutrition had longstanding effects on IQ, even after the child's original intelligence and socio-economic status were taken into account.

In the study, she examined whether the type of children's daily main meal – comparing fast food with ‘slow’, freshly cooked food – impacted on children’ cognitive ability and growth, based on a sample of 4,000 Scottish children aged three to five years.

“It’s common sense that the type of food we eat will affect brain development but previous research has only looked at the effects of specific food groups on children’s IQ rather than at generic types of meals,” von Stumm said.

“This research will go some way to providing hard evidence to support the various high-profile campaigns aimed at reducing the amount of fast food consumed by children in the UK.”

The results indicated that food partly mediated the effects of socio-economic status on children's intellectual development. Parents of higher socio-economic status reported that they gave their children meals prepared with fresh ingredients more often, which positively affected their IQ.

In other words, one of the reasons why higher socio-economic status was positively associated with IQ gains was that it increased the probability of providing a healthier diet for children. Conversely, lower socio-economic status was linked to a higher frequency of children having fast food, which led to lower intelligence.

“The findings highlight that differences in children's meals are also a social problem. Mothers and fathers from less privileged backgrounds often have less time to prepare a freshly cooked meal from scratch for their children,” Von Stumm said.

“These children score lower on intelligence tests and often struggle in school. Schools in less privileged areas must do even more to balance children's diet so they can achieve their cognitive potential.

“It goes to show that the freshness and quality of food matters more than just being full, in particular when children are young and developing.”