A new study highlights parents’ and teachers’ varied perceptions on the connection between diet and a child’s physical and mental development in four European countries. Given parents’ comparatively lower awareness regarding the way diet impacts children’s mental development, researchers propose a further study to identify the most effective strategies to educate the public on the mental health effects of maintaining a nutritious diet.
As concern about childhood obesity spreads, the ways in which diet impacts children’s mental development tend to garner less attention and understanding. Scientific evidence demonstrates a complex link between nutrition and cognitive development, behavior, and mental performance. However, the intricacies of cognitive processes tend to create barriers for lay parents to relate. This gap in understanding and awareness represents an opportunity for public health intervention through consumer education. Circulating clear messaging to targeted subgroups of the population stands to highlight the connection between diet and mental development in children in order to encourage a more well-rounded view of nutrition, physical development, and mental health.
In a recent study in the British Journal of Nutrition (2016), researchers compared 1606 parents’ and 403 teachers’ views on the correlation between diet and children’s physical and mental development using an online questionnaire translated for consistency in four European countries: England, Germany, Hungary, and Spain. Participation in this study was limited to only parents and/or teachers of children ranging in age from 4-10 years old (as adults would likely exercise more control over these children’s diets) with no diagnosed learning or behavioral issues.
The online questionnaire gauged respondents’ views on a five-point scale (e.g. extremely, very much, moderately, slightly, not at all, or don’t know) with regard to: (1) the degree to which diet impacts children’s mental development and physical development, and (2) the effect of nutrition on a list of ten “indicators of a child’s physical (overall health, energy levels, weight, physical activity and sleep) and mental (attention, ability to learn, memory, mood and behavior) performance”. Participants also completed a General Health Interest (GHI) scale, measuring “health-related food attitudes” which indicated level of interest in healthy eating. GHI scores varied depending on socioeconomic background, sex, and education level.
This study found 80% of participating parents and teachers considered children’s physical development to depend ‘very much’ or ‘extremely’ on diet, whereas only 67% thought the same of a child’s mental development. Parents with fewer children were found more likely to consider diet a strong influence on a child’s physical development. Results also indicated that parents who achieved higher education tended to view diet as important in terms of both physical and mental development. Generally, surveyed teachers scored significantly higher on the GHI scale than parents.
Researchers believe the relative decrease in awareness relating to diet and mental development as compared to physical development is due to variances in socioeconomic factors, educational background, and the public’s general understanding of the nuances of children’s brain development. Dietary links to physical performance often seem more readily apparent (e.g. obesity, energy levels, and overall appearance of health), while mental performance indicators such as attention, mood, and memory are more layered and may be interdependent on several other factors. These complexities can cause confusion amongst people without a background in health/nutrition, thereby demonstrating a need for public health outreach and education.
Ultimately, this study seeks to increase awareness about how diet impacts children’s mental development. By identifying knowledge gaps in diverse subgroups of the population, researchers can further explore the most effective methods of educating parents and teachers on the vital role of diet and nutrition in children’s mental development. Future targeted research has the potential to inform public health campaigns to successfully shed light on the holistic effects of healthy eating on child development and create more health-conscious and knowledgeable citizens.
Written By: Jennifer Newton