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



To determine whether a ‘junk food’ diet at age 4½ is associated with behavioural problems at age 7.


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 4½ by maternal report was used to generate a ‘junk food’ factor. Data on confounders were available from questionnaires.


A one standard deviation increase in ‘junk food’ intake at age 4½ 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.


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.

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We thank all the families who took part in this study, the midwives for help in recruiting them and the whole ALSPAC team, which includes interviewers, computer and laboratory technicians, clerical workers, research scientists, volunteers, managers, receptionists and nurses. The UK Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Bristol provided core support for ALSPAC. The funding bodies have had no influence over this work or its publication.

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Correspondence to N J Wiles.

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Guarantors: K Northstone and NJ Wiles.

Contributors: The study idea was conceived by GL and PE, with input from NJW and KN. KN analysed the data, with input from NJW, PE and GL. NJW wrote the first draft of the paper, which was revised after comments from all other authors. The ALSPAC study team designed the original study and collected and entered the data. This publication is the work of the authors.

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Wiles, N., Northstone, K., Emmett, P. et al. ‘Junk food’ diet and childhood behavioural problems: results from the ALSPAC cohort. Eur J Clin Nutr 63, 491–498 (2009).

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