Scientists in Malaysia have shown that parents’ feeding practices and attitudes to nutrition can affect cognitive performance in young children.

A child eating

Feeding habits can affect cognitive performance in young children.

Nutrition is one of the most important environmental factors influencing brain function and development. It provides the building blocks for nerves as well as vital energy to keep the brain running.

Parents play an important role in developing a child’s eating behaviour and food preferences through different feeding practices, such as restricting unhealthy food.

But this complex relationship between food habits and cognitive development in young children s poorly understood, so a team of scientists led by Mohd Nasir from Universiti Putra Malaysia launched a study to explore this in greater detail.

Working with a sample of 1933 children aged between four and six from preschools in West Malaysia, the team measured children’s heights and weights, questioned them about their eating habits and tested their cognitive performance (ability to think, remember and solve problems) using a standardised test. They also interviewed the parents of each child to determine their socio-demographic background, nutritional knowledge and feeding practices.

Only 39 per cent of parents involved in the study were deemed to have ‘satisfactory’ or ‘good’ knowledge of nutrition. Children whose parents felt more responsibility in instilling healthy eating habits and those whose parents were more restrictive towards unhealthy foods, performed better in the cognitive test. The majority of children questioned had three meals per day on at least five days a week, but 11 per cent were found to regularly skip breakfast and 15 per cent regularly skip dinner.

Missing dinner was linked to poor cognitive performance. A low height or weight for their age (a sign of chronic malnutrition) was also associated with poor cognitive performance, though only a small percentage of children were underweight (8 per cent) or had stunted growth (8.4 per cent).

Various socio-economic factors were shown to make a difference. High household income, fewer siblings and a smaller household were all associated with better cognitive performance.

This study was the first to examine the link between nutrition and cognition in pre-schoolers on a nationwide level in Malaysia. It is hoped that the data provided will useful in developing future intervention programmes.

References:

DOI: Mohd Taib Mohd Nasir, Abdul Karim Norimah,, Abu Saad Hazizi, Abdul Razak Nurliyana, Siow Hon Loh, Ibrahim Suraya (2012) “Child feeding practices, food habits, anthropometric indicators and cognitive performance among preschoolers in Peninsular MalaysiaAppetite 58 p525–530

For further information contact:

Dr Mohd Nasir
Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences
Universiti Putra Malaysia
Email: nasir@medic.upm.edu.my