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Children born to mothers with unhealthy diets during pregnancy are more likely to suffer from behavioral problems, new research finds. Moreover, children who adopt unhealthy diets at a young age show increased symptoms of depression, anxiety, aggression and tantrums.

This latest research comes from a study out of Deakin Univeristy in Melbourne, Australia involving 23,020 women and their children, who are a part of the larger ongoing Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study. Dr. Felice N. Jacka and her team of researchers gathered detailed information about each mothers’ diets during pregnancy as well as their children’s diets when they turned 18 months of age and three years old, reports Food Magazine.

The findings of the study, published in the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suggest first that mothers who eat diets made up of unhealthy foods like refined cereals, sweet drinks and salty snacks during pregnancy have children who exhibit behavioral problems like aggression and tantrums. Furthermore, children who also ate unhealthy foods in the early years of their life showed more signs of these “externalizing” behaviors and even “internalizing” ones like depression and anxiety, according to Psych Central.

“We’ve known for some time that very early life nutrition, including the nutrition received while the child is in utero, is related to physical health outcomes in children — their risk for later heart disease or diabetes, for example. But this is the first study indicating that diet may also be important to mental health outcomes in children,” Jacka said.

These relationships were found independent of other factors such as socioeconomic circumstances or the mental health of the parents, which may help to further explain these findings in future studies.

Yet this new research does illustrate that “junk” foods may indeed play a more significant role in early childhood development than initially realized. The study has the potential to open new doors in research and could also play a role in enacting better national food policies.

“There is an urgent need for governments everywhere to take note of the evidence and amend food policy to restrict the marketing and availability of unhealthy food products to the community,” Jacka said.

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