Your Child’s Diet Might Help Prevent Mental Illness

February 1, 2021

We all know that diet plays an important role in health. It clearly plays a role in weight, diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes. Most people, however, aren’t too worried about these things in children. These are usually diseases of older people, so most parents don’t think about them when it comes to their children. Many parents don’t worry too much about what their kids are eating. They’re young, after all, so they can usually burn off any extra calories. Newly published research, however, raises concern about this approach.

The research, published in JAMA Psychiatry, suggests that two factors closely linked with diet – insulin levels and obesity – may be strong predictors of children who go on to develop serious mental illness.

The researchers followed almost 15,000 children from the ages of 1 to 24 years old. They measured fasting insulin levels at 9, 15, 18, and 24 years of age, and body mass index repeatedly over the 24 years. They then measured the children’s risk for depression and psychosis at 24 years old. What they found was alarming.

Children who had persistently high insulin levels (a sign of insulin resistance) beginning at age 9 were five times more likely to be at risk for psychosis, and three times more likely to already be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. This usually means bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. These are devastating disorders that can ruin lives. These children were also at somewhat higher risk of depression, but it wasn’t a statistically significant difference.

Children who had a significant increase in body mass index around the time of puberty were four times more likely to develop depression by the time they turned 24. They were also more likely to develop a psychotic disorder, but this difference wasn’t statistically significant. With depression now the leading cause of disability in the world, it’s not a disorder to take lightly.

Unfortunately, this research can’t tell us for sure if changing diet in childhood or adolescence can make a difference, but there is reason to believe that it might help. It will certainly help to address obesity and the risk for diabetes, which are no small matters.

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