It’s not just young growing bodies that need healthy foods — proper nutrition is needed for growing brains too! New research shows that skimping on nutrients — and overloading on fats and sugars — translates into lower IQ scores for kids.

British researchers looked at data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which followed the health, diet and wellbeing of several thousand children born in 1991 and 1992. Of these, data was gathered for 4,000 children, comparing dietary patterns with test scores. Based on questionnaires parents filled out when their children were 3, 4, 7 and 8 years old, diets were characterized as either “processed” (high in fat and sugar), “traditional” (e.g., meat and potatoes) or “health conscious,” (more fruit, vegetables, salads, etc.). IQ was measured at 8.5 years of age. The results: A “processed” diet significantly lowered IQ scores. The “health conscious” diet added points to IQ compared to “processed” and “traditional” diets. The authors note that a child’s brain grows at its fastest rate in the first three years of life, possibly explaining why early nutrition is linked to later mental ability.

These results build on previous research showing how diet impacts test scores. One University of Pittsburgh study found that higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids correlated with better academic performance.  Children with the highest fruit and vegetable intakes are 60% more likely to pass literacy tests, while University of South Carolina researchers found that overweight children were nearly three times more likely to score poorly on tests measuring visual-spatial organization.

 Published September 1, 2011