Children scored lower on cognitive tests if they have diets high in sugar or their mothers consumed to much sweet stuff during pregnancy, a new study found.
A Harvard University study published this week found that children whose mothers ate large amounts of processed foods and drank sugary sodas during pregnancy scored lower on tests relating to learning, memory, problem-solving and verbal skills.
Similarly, children who had similar dietary habits, usually passed down from their parents, were found to be less intelligent.
On the flip side, when mothers and children ate diets that were high in fruit, which contains so-called healthy sugars, scores were significantly improved.
For decades health officials have warned of sugar’s link to health problems such as obesity and diabetes, but this study is one of the first to draw a link between the substance and early brain development.
Consuming a high-sugar diet during pregnancy and early childhood results in lower cognitive scores for children under age ten, according to a new study
The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 10 teaspoons of sugar each day.
However, the average daily consumption for American adults is more than double that at 22 teaspoons, equivalent to around 350 calories.
American children consume more than triple the recommended amount at 32 teaspoons.
Health officials have been warning Americans to cut their sugar intake for the last three decades, but research shows that consumption habits haven’t changed much.
High-sugar diets have been linked to a host of health issues including obesity, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
The study, published this week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, suggests that the harmful effects of a high-sugar diet begin before a child is even born.
‘The aim of our study was to examine associations of pregnancy and offspring sugar consumption with child cognition,’ said Juliana Cohen, a lead researcher from Merrimack College and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
‘Additionally, we examined associations of maternal and child consumption of [sugar-sweetened beverages], other beverages including diet soda and juice, and fruit with child cognition.’
Researchers collected dietary information from more than 1,000 pregnant women in Massachusetts between 1999 and 2002 as well as information about their children’s diets during early childhood.
Each child’s cognitive function was scored based on tests measuring skills including vocabulary and problem-solving ability, once at age three and again at age seven.
The average mom was found to consume nearly 50 grams of sugar per day, which is more than three times higher than the daily recommended 15 grams.
The largest source of sugar for moms was sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas and added sweeteners from highly-processed foods.
The findings revealed that moms who consumed more than 50 grams of sugar daily had children with lower cognitive scores when it came to memory and problem-solving ability than moms who ate a more natural diet.
Drinking sugar-sweetened sodas in particular during pregnancy was linked to poorer scores for both verbal knowledge and nonverbal skills.
Diet sodas, however, were associated with poorer fine motor, visual spatial, and visual motor abilities at age three and poorer verbal abilities at age seven.
The children in the study were found to consume an average of 30 grams of sugar per day, double what is recommended.
Children who drank sugary sodas were found to have poorer verbal intelligence at age seven, whereas children whose ate more fruits were found to have better cognitive scores in several areas, especially when it came to vocabulary.
Fruit-consumption was also associated with improved visual motor abilities in early childhood and verbal intelligence in mid-childhood.
Interestingly, fruit juice was not found to have the same benefits as whole fruit, which may suggest that the benefit was from phytochemicals, the researchers said.
Ultimately, the researchers concluded that pregnant women and parents need to be better informed about what is in their diet.
Dr Cohen said: ‘This study provides additional support for keeping federal nutrition programs strong, such as Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the National School Lunch Program, because their promotion of diets higher in fruits and lower in added sugars may be associated with improved childhood cognition.’