That Sugar Movement


Maternal and post-natal nutrition and our children’s behaviour

160825_TSF_BlogHero_04Food and nutrition play a big role in health outcomes – something we can all agree on!

We have discussed how food choice can influence the state of the intestinal microbiome, which in turn can have effects on the gut, brain, and body.

And it seems the state of mama’s microbiome may influence certain health outcomes in the baby, such as propensity for weight gain.

But what about how our kidlets behave? Can the diet have a big influence over this?

Perhaps so…

The study

A recently published 5-year prospective study that included over 23,000 participants sought to identify a link between maternal and post-natal diet choice and the behavioural and emotional outcomes of the child.1

It measured internalizing and externalizing mental health difficulties in children between ages of 1.5-5 years. Such behavioural traits include social withdrawal, fear, loneliness, pessimism, and nervousness; and aggression, oppositional behaviour, hyperactivity and reduced problem-solving skills respectively.2

The two types of mental health difficulties were measured against the maternal diet, and the diet of the children at 1.5 and 3 years of age.

Researchers found that mums with an ‘unhealthy’ diet, like one high in processed and refined foods, including high consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and salted snacks, was correlated with the child exhibiting externalizing behaviours; and when the littlie was of an age to chomp down on similar foods, there was higher incidence of internalizing and externalizing behaviours.

Other studies also support the notion of the impact of maternal diet on behaviour and emotional state. A Dutch study of 3,104 children and their mothers found an inverse relationship with those consuming a Mediterranean-style diet, high in vegetables, fruit, olive oil, eggs, and fish, and negative mental health outcomes of the children.3

Yet a positive relationship was determined for those consuming a ‘Dutch’ style of eating and a child’s externalizing behaviours, which includes high intakes of processed meat, potatoes, and margarine (among other things).

It is thought the disparity between a high adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet and high adherence to a ‘Dutch’ style diet that could affect the child’s mental health outcomes is due to the difference in vegetable, fruit, and essential fatty acid intake. Such foods offer powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, critical for health and proper development.3

The importance veg and fruit intake to a positive state of mental health is further supported in a Canadian cross-sectional study, where those with the highest vegetable and fruit intake had 27% less risk of developing depression than those who barely touched their greens.4

The count for veg and fruit did not include potatoes nor fruit juices, by the way!

It is studies like this that really encourage us to sit up and listen to the kind of impact food choice can have. For so long, food has been considered only as fuel. But it can be hugely influential to our state of wellbeing, including improvement and prevention of negative mental health outcomes.5

Guess that is why we are all so enthused to get on the low-added-sugar bandwagon!

What is interesting, is some dietary choices that cause negative effects in some may not elicit the same result in others.

And it seems our genes may have a role to play.

Nature vs nurture

A mammoth on-going study out of Dunedin has been addressing the nature vs nurture concept on health and behavioural outcomes.6

Conclusions being drawn are that, sure, we may have genes that predispose us to act a certain way, or be vulnerable to a particular disease state, but it is the environment that determines whether the genes kick into action!

This can begin to explain why some people are more susceptible to behavioural, emotional or physiological states than others even when exposed to similar environmental factors – such as diet.

Diet and our kids

Genetics will always have a role to play in health outcomes, but when data becomes available with a strong association between A LOT of people, food choice, and a certain outcome, we may want to take heed.

In this case, cutting the crap foods will likely lead to happy, healthy you and littlies!

Focus on foods that are as close to their real form as possible, including vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, lean and good quality meat, poultry, eggs, dairy and fish, and some whole grains.

Eating a variety of foods, in moderation, is critical. And sure, there will always be some of the highly processed stuff around (who doesn’t love a potato crisp?)! Just make sure they aren’t the main part of your every meal every day.

By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.) 



  1. Jacka, FN, Ystrom, E, Brantsaeter, AL, Karevold, E, Roth, C, Haugen, M, Meltzer, HM, Schjolberg, S, & Berk, M 2013, ‘Maternal and early postnatal nutrition and mental health of offspring by age 5 years: a prospective cohort study’, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, no. 10, p. 1038.
  2. Kids Matter 2013, How mental health difficulties affect children, viewed 18 July 2016, <>
  3. Steenweg-de Graaff, J, Tiemeier, H, Steegers-Theunissen, RP, Hofman, A, Jaddoe, VW, Verhulst, FC, & Roza, SJ 2014, ‘Maternal dietary patterns during pregnancy and child internalising and externalising problems. The Generation R Study’, Clinical Nutrition, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 115-121 7p.
  4. McMartin, SE, Jacka, FN, & Colman, I 2013, ‘The association between fruit and vegetable consumption and mental health disorders: Evidence from five waves of a national survey of Canadians’, Preventive Medicine, no. 3-4, p. 225.
  5. O’Neil, A, Itsiopoulos, C, Skouteris, H, Opie, RS, McPhie, S, Hill, B, & Jacka, FN 2014, ‘Preventing mental health problems in offspring by targeting dietary intake of pregnant women’, BMC Medicine, vol. 12, p. 208.
  6. Poulton, R, Moffitt, TE, & Silva, PA 2015, ‘The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study: overview of the first 40 years, with an eye to the future’, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, no. 5, p. 679.


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