Household chaos, poor diet can stunt a child’s cognitive growth

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Could a hectic household actually impair a child’s brain development? A new study finds that both poor nutrition and living in a “chaotic” home environment can negatively impact a young child’s executive brain functioning.

These higher order cognitive skills include memory and attention skills and emotional control. In a study of children between 18 months and two years-old, researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that youngsters eating sugary snacks and processed foods were more likely to have problems with their working memory and with planning and organizing tasks.

Moreover, living in a household with high amounts of noise, overcrowding, and disorganization also contributed to poorer executive functioning — regardless of the child’s diet.

Nearly 300 families participated in the project, as part of an ongoing birth cohort study which has been gathering data on each child’s dietary habits, weight, social-emotional skills, and family relationships since they were six weeks-old.

“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,” says study first author and graduate student Samantha Iwinski in a university release.

What can a poor diet do to a child’s development?

The information on the children came from their caregivers and focused on how often each child consumed various fresh and processed foods. The parents and caregivers also completed a “behavioral inventory” which measured the different dimensions of executive function — such as whether their child is easily overwhelmed or has ongoing problems with playing or talking too loudly.

Additionally, the adult participants had to fill out a questionnaire about household chaos, revealing whether their child lives in a home that’s quiet and has well-established rules, or is noisy and disorganized. Previous studies have found a link between adolescents and teens who live in a chaotic household and behavioral problems or poor performance on tests measuring their emotional control.

In this study, the team found poor diet scores had a connection to diminished cognitive performance and worsening behavior among young children. These diets included regular consumption of sugary snacks and processed foods.

“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 says. “Even at this young age, dietary intake may affect children’s executive function at multiple levels.”

A calm home is a healthy home

Along with a better diet, the researchers suspected that calmer households with more predictable routines would protect against the impact of a poor diet.

Instead, the study found household chaos was an independent predictor of poor executive functioning among young children. In order to prevent children from dealing with poorer memory, learning, and emotional skills, the study authors recommend that parents and caregivers focus on activities which create healthy routines for their children. At the same time, switching to healthier snacks and limiting junk food can also improve their cognitive skills.

“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 concludes. “These children may not be able to interpret cues and respond appropriately in certain social and emotional situations.”

To better understand how poor nutrition and a disorganized home life impacts child development over the long-term, the team is now following up with the same children — who are now between five and six years-old.

The birth study received its funding from the National Dairy Council, the Gerber Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The findings appear in the journal Nutrients.

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