Nutrition and intelligence have been studied independently and together across a variety of topics and with a number of different approaches. Children with learning disabilities and behavioral problems often have their diets scrutinized in the hopes of finding a contributor to symptom exacerbation. Similarly, children with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) are sometimes put on a diet low with few processed foods and sugars in order to potentially moderate focus and attention problems. But few studies have looked at how diet directly impacts intelligence (IQ).
Because neurological development occurs rapidly during infancy and early childhood, it could be assumed that the dietary intake during this phase could have a significant impact on IQ. Lisa G. Smithers of the Discipline of Public Health at the University of Adelaide in South Australia wanted to take a unique approach to this area of research. In a recent study, Smithers looked at what types of foods participants ate in the first two years of life and how that influenced IQ when they were 8 and 15 years old. For her study, Smithers gathered information on diet from over 7,600 participants and evaluated their intelligence scores at ages 8 and 15. She found that there were four categories of dietary intake including healthy, discretionary, traditional, and ready-to-eat.
The discretionary and traditional diets consisted of snacks/carbohydrates and meat/vegetables/puddings respectively. The ready-to-eat category included mostly packaged baby foods, while the healthy category was mostly breast milk and raw vegetables and fruits. It was the healthy diet that appeared to have the most positive effect on IQ at both ages. In fact, participants raised on discretionary and traditional diets had lower IQs than healthy diet participants at both ages. However, those in the ready-to-eat category had IQs similar to those of the healthy diet participants. Smithers said, “This suggests that diet from six to 24 months of age, when neural tissues are undergoing rapid development, has a small but persistent association with IQ.” However, she added that other factors could be at play. Smithers hopes that longer studies that include details of diet throughout early and middle childhood will shed more light on the relationship between diet and intelligence.
Smithers, L.G., Golley, R.K., Mittinty, M.N., Brazionis, L., Northstone, K., et al. (2013). Do dietary trajectories between infancy and toddlerhood influence IQ in childhood and adolescence? Results from a prospective birth cohort study. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58904. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058904
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