'Junk food' diet and childhood behavioural problems: results from the ALSPAC cohort

Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009 Apr;63(4):491-8. doi: 10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602967. Epub 2007 Dec 5.


Background/objectives: To determine whether a 'junk food' diet at age 4(1/2) is associated with behavioural problems at age 7.

Subjects/methods: Data on approximately 4000 children participating in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a birth cohort recruited in Avon, UK in 1991/92 were used. Behavioural problems were measured at age 7 using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ; maternal completion). Total difficulties and scores for the five sub-scales (hyperactivity, conduct and peer problems, emotional symptoms and pro-social behaviour) were calculated. Principal components analysis of dietary data (frequency of consumption of 57 foods/drinks) collected at age 4(1/2) by maternal report was used to generate a 'junk food' factor. Data on confounders were available from questionnaires.

Results: A one standard deviation increase in 'junk food' intake at age 4(1/2) years was associated with increased hyperactivity at age 7 (odds ratio: 1.19; 95% confidence interval: 1.10, 1.29). This persisted after adjustment for confounders including intelligence quotient score (odds ratio: 1.13; 95% confidence interval: 1.01, 1.15). There was little evidence to support an association between 'junk food' intake and overall behavioural difficulties or other sub-scales of the SDQ.

Conclusions: Children eating a diet high in 'junk food' in early childhood were more likely to be in the top 33% on the SDQ hyperactivity sub-scale at age 7. This may reflect a long-term nutritional imbalance, or differences in parenting style. This finding requires replication before it can provide an avenue for intervention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / etiology*
  • Child
  • Child Behavior Disorders / etiology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Diet / adverse effects*
  • Dietary Sucrose / administration & dosage
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • United Kingdom


  • Dietary Sucrose