Sugary Snacks Can Negatively Impact Young Children’s Cognitive Skills

Toddler Girl Playing Inside

The study also found that household chaos also had a correlation with children’s cognitive skills.

Poor diet and household chaos may impair young children’s cognitive skills.

According to study results from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, young children’s executive functioning—the higher order cognitive abilities that control memory, attention, and emotional control—may be negatively impacted by poor nutrition coupled with living in a chaotic home environment.

According to questionnaires filled out by their caregivers, children between the ages of 18 months and 2 were more likely to struggle with fundamental aspects of executive functioning like inhibition, working memory, and planning and organizing skills if they consumed more sugary snacks and processed foods.

The approximately 300 families who took part in the study were a part of an ongoing birth cohort study where information on the children’s eating patterns, weight trends, social-emotional development, and family dynamics was first gathered when they were around 6 weeks old.

The National Dairy Council, Gerber Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and United States Department of Agriculture are all funders of the birth cohort study.

The current study was novel in that it concentrated on children at ages when they were developing these essential skills and when dietary habits and home environments could play crucial roles. Similar research exploring links between nutrition and executive function had previously been conducted with older children and teens.

Samantha Iwinski and Kelly Bost

Analyses of data on hundreds of young children suggested that regular consumption of sugary snacks and other unhealthy food, coupled with chaotic living environments, may impair children’s development of executive function skills. Graduate student Samantha Iwinski and Kelly Bost, a professor of human development and family studies, were co-authors of the study. Credit: Fred Zwicky

“Children begin rapidly developing executive functions around the ages 2-5, and we wanted to look at that initial period when parents were making critical food-related decisions and the impact these had on children’s cognitive abilities,” said first author Samantha Iwinski, a graduate student who has worked with the project for several years.

Published in the journal Nutrients, the study was based on extensive data collected from the children’s caregivers, including a dietary intake questionnaire that assessed how often each child consumed various fresh and processed foods. Caregivers also completed a behavioral inventory that measured various dimensions of executive function such as whether the child became easily overwhelmed or had recurrent problems with playing or talking too loudly.

Additionally, each caregiver answered questions about household chaos, such as whether the child’s home environment was typically quiet and run with established routines or was prone to noise, overcrowding, and disorganization.

Prior research on adolescents and teens linked household chaos with behavioral problems and poor performance on tasks related to core dimensions of executive function such as the ability to focus and control one’s emotions.

Accordingly, the University of Illinois researchers’ analyses suggested that poor nutrition – including regular consumption of various snacks and processed foods – was associated with diminished cognitive performance and behavior among the children in the study.

“We saw that higher intake of these foods was related to lower levels of certain indices, including emotional control, inhibition, and planning and organizing,” Iwinski said. “Even at this young age, dietary intake may affect children’s executive function at multiple levels.”

The University of Illinois team hypothesized that calmer households with predictable routines might buffer the effects of a poor diet on children’s executive function.

Rather than moderating the relationship between executive function and dietary intake as the team had hypothesized, household chaos had an independent correlation with children’s cognitive skills.

The findings highlight the importance of both good nutrition and healthy household environments in promoting children’s best cognitive development, said co-author Kelly Freeman Bost, a professor of child development and of psychology.

To mitigate potential negative effects on children’s cognitive skills, Iwinksi suggested that prevention programs focus on activities and supports that help parents establish healthy routines and limit their children’s consumption of snacks and less healthy foods.

“Children may not understand the signals around them when environments are noisy or disorganized, and a lack of routine and consistency may influence their attention and emotional regulation,” Iwinski said. “These children may not be able to interpret cues and respond appropriately in certain social and emotional situations.”

To better understand the correlations found in the current study and examine how they persist or evolve as children age, Iwinski and her co-authors are planning a follow-up study with the same families and their children, who are now 5-6 years old.

However, because the sample lacked racial, ethnic, and economic diversity, the findings may not be generalizable to other populations. More studies are needed with diverse populations and longitudinal and experimental project designs before causal claims can be made, the researchers said.

Bost and Iwinski co-wrote the paper with University of Illinois faculty members Sharon M. Donovan, the professor and Melissa M. Noel Endowed Chair of Nutrition and Health; and Barbara H. Fiese, the co-director of the STRONG Kids2 project and a professor emerita of human development and family studies.

Reference: “The Impact of Household Chaos and Dietary Intake on Executive Function in Young Children” by Samantha Iwinski, Sharon M. Donovan, Barbara Fiese and Kelly Bost, 12 December 2021, Nutrients.
DOI: 10.3390/nu13124442

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