The research, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, was conducted as part of the EU-funded NUTRIMENTHE project, which involves scientists from 20 organisations and nine countries.
“Our study found that larger proportions of parents and teachers regarded diet to be an important determinant of physical development than of mental development,” lead author Dr Bernadette Egan from the University of Surrey told NutraIngredients.
80% of teachers and parents thought diet was an important part of physical development compared to 67% who thought it was important for mental development.
Public health message
Alarming childhood obesity figures have put the spotlight on the understanding of parents and teachers of a healthy diet, but traditionally public health messages on the impact of diet and nutrition on children’s mental development and performance have received little attention.
“We were particularly interested in the views of parents and teachers on the effects of diet on mental performance as this is an area less well studied than the impact of diet on children’s physical health,” Dr Egan said.
“Parents influence all aspects of a child’s life to some degree including the development of food choices as well as controlling the availability and types of food in the home.
“The family provides a key environment for children to learn and develop food preferences and eating habits and parents are seen as nutritional gatekeepers. Teachers also have a very important role to play at this stage of children’s lives.”
Nutrition is important for the brain’s development, energy supply, metabolism, neurotransmission and cognitive functioning, with research suggesting beneficial effects last well into adult years.
Previous studies by the authors have suggested parents and teachers rank diet lower than activity and sleep as factors influencing mental development and performance.
In the current study the researchers from universities in the UK, Germany, Spain and Hungary set out to distil public health messages by analysing and comparing attitudes across the four European countries.
Over 2000 participants
Parents and teachers of children aged four to ten years without learning or behavioural difficulties completed an online questionnaire on the influence of diet on physical and mental performance.
The age range was chosen because of the significant influence parents and teachers have on the children’s diet at this age.
Participants were mainly white ethnicity and more teachers than parents were over the age of 45 years.
Answers were scored on a five-point scale ranging from ‘extremely’ to ‘not at all’ and ‘don’t know’.
Questionnaires were returned by 1606 parents (401 in England, Germany and Hungary; 403 in Spain) and 403 teachers (100 in each country, except for 103 in Hungary).
Hungary for health?
Overall, 80% of participants felt that a child’s physical development depended very much or extremely on diet. The equivalent proportion for mental development was lower at 67%.
Except for Germany, higher proportions of teachers than parents thought diet was a very/extremely important factor for both physical and mental development, and that it affects attention, mood, behaviour and sleep.
Those living in Hungary interested in healthy eating or having a higher education were more likely to believe diet influences physical and mental development.
Egan told us the Hungarian result could reflect cultural differences or greater availability of information for consumers, but this would need further exploration.
‘A need for clearer messages’
Dr Egan told us the results may have big public health implications.
“This may reflect a need for clearer messages and a higher profile for the impact of nutrition on mental development. A broad, deep, evidence base is needed before messages can be developed, to reduce the level of scientific uncertainty in this domain, perceived by consumers.
“For messages to be effective they need to use language that is understood by and relevant to consumers and may need to be framed in terms of overall health and wellbeing.”
Although the study was based on four different European countries, she said the results may not be representative of the entire European population.
“In order to recruit large national samples, respondents were drawn from market research panels. Members of the panels are volunteers and are typically reimbursed for the time they spend completing online surveys.
“Hence, the people attracted to this role may not be representative of the general population in each country.”