During pregnancy, it can be hard not to give in to those cravings for unhealthy foods. But researchers have found that mothers who eat junk food while pregnant are more likely to have children with mental health problems.

Researchers from Deakin University in Australia, alongside researchers from Norway, analyzed more than 23,000 mothers who were a part of the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort study.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, gathered information regarding the mothers' diets throughout pregnancy and their children's diets at both 18 months and 3 years of age.

The mothers were also asked to complete questionnaires when their children were 18 months, 3-years and 5-years-old to establish symptoms of:

The researchers then analyzed the relationship between the mothers' and children's diets, and the mental health symptoms and behaviors in the children aged 18 months to five-years-old.

Results of the study reveal that mothers who eat more unhealthy foods during pregnancy, such as sweet drinks, refined cereals and salty foods, have children with increased behavioral problems, such as aggression and tantrums.

Additionally, the findings show that children who eat more unhealthy foods in their first years of life, or who lack nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, also show increased aggression and behavioral problems, as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Associate professor Felice Jacka, researcher at the IMPACT Strategic Research Center at Deakin University, says:

"It is becoming even more clear that diet matters to mental health right across the age spectrum."

"These new findings suggest that unhealthy and 'junk' foods may have an impact on the risk for mental health problems in children, and they add to the growing body of evidence on the impact of unhealthy diets on the risk for depression, anxiety and even dementia."

Felice Jacka adds that there is an urgent need for governments everywhere to take note of the evidence and change policies to restrict the marketing and availability of unhealthy food products to the community.

"The changes to our food systems, including the shift to more high-energy, low nutrition foods developed and marketed by the processed food industry, have led to a massive increase in obesity-related illnesses right across the globe," she says.

The UK National Health Service notes that although there is no need to go on a special diet during pregnancy, it is important to eat a variety of different foods every day to ensure both mother and baby get the right balance of nutrients.

They add that instead of eating snacks that are high in fat and sugar, try a healthy alternative such as:

  • Sandwiches or pita bread filled with grated cheese, lean ham, mashed tuna, salmon or sardines, with salad
  • Salad vegetables - such as carrot, celery or cucumber
  • Low-fat yoghurt or fromage frais
  • Hummus with bread or vegetable sticks
  • Ready-to-eat apricots, figs or prunes
  • Vegetable and bean soups
  • Unsweetened breakfast cereals, or porridge with milk
  • Milky drinks or unsweetened fruit juices
  • Fresh fruit
  • Baked beans on toast or a baked potato.
Other studies have also suggested potential health risks of eating junk food while pregnant. Animal research from the Royal Veterinary College in London in 2006 suggested a link between unhealthy food during pregnancy and the risk of obesity in offspring.