Inadequate nutrition and chaotic home lives might impair children’s cognitive skills
The Sector > Research > Inadequate nutrition and chaotic home lives might impair children’s cognitive skills

Inadequate nutrition and chaotic home lives might impair children’s cognitive skills

by Freya Lucas

November 07, 2022

Children who regularly consume sugary convenience foods and who live in chaotic home environments may have impaired development, especially when it comes to developing executive functioning skills, researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (U of I) have found.


To reach their findings, the researchers analysed data from hundreds of young children aged between 18 months and two years of age, discovering that those who ate greater quantities of sugary snacks and processed foods were more likely to have problems with core components of executive functioning such as inhibition, working memory, and planning and organising abilities, according to surveys completed by their caregivers.

Nearly 300 families participated in the research as part of an ongoing birth cohort study in which researchers began collecting data on the children’s dietary habits, weight trajectories, social-emotional skills and family relationships when they were about six weeks old.

The birth cohort study was supported by the National Dairy Council, the Gerber Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Agriculture.


While previous studies have explored the links between nutrition and executive function, this work is typically conducted with older children and teens, while the current study is novel in that it focused on children at ages when they were developing these vital skills and when dietary habits and home environments could play pivotal roles.

“Children begin rapidly developing executive functions around the ages two to five years, 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,” said first author Samantha Iwinski. 

Published in the journal Nutrients, the study was based on extensive data collected from the children’s caregivers, including a dietary intake questionnaire that assessed how often each child consumed various fresh and processed foods.


Caregivers also completed a behavioural inventory that measured various dimensions of executive function such as whether the child became easily overwhelmed or had recurrent problems with playing or talking too loudly.

Additionally, each caregiver answered questions about household chaos, such as whether the child’s home environment was typically quiet and run with established routines or was prone to noise, overcrowding and disorganisation.

“We saw that higher intake of certain foods was related to lower levels of certain indices, including emotional control, inhibition and planning and organizing,” Ms Iwinski said. “Even at this young age, dietary intake may affect children’s executive function at multiple levels.”

The U of I team hypothesised that calmer households with predictable routines might buffer the effects of a poor diet on children’s executive function.

The findings highlight the importance of both good nutrition and healthy household environments in promoting children’s best cognitive development, said co-author Kelly Freeman Bost, a professor of child development and of psychology.

The paper, The impact of household chaos and dietary intake on executive function in young children, is available here

Download The Sector's new App!

ECEC news, jobs, events and more anytime, anywhere.

Download App on Apple App Store Button Download App on Google Play Store Button