How Poor Nutrition Affects Child Development

Nutrition dictates more than a person's body mass index. The nutrition a child receives during the first few years of life can affect her health for years to come. Balanced nutrition is important to child development because children need specific nutrients to thrive and grow. Poor nutrition can result from lack of food as well as overeating, since nutrition is about more than simple caloric intake. Proper child development relies on a solid nutritional foundation, which includes the correct amount of each nutrient.

Smiling young girl in classroom. (Image: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Getty Images)

Physical Growth

A study published in the "New England Journal of Medicine" by doctors H. Peter Chase and Harold P. Martin measured children who were hospitalized for undernutrition during their first year of life. The doctors found that these children were consistently smaller than children who had not experienced undernutrition, even three and four years later. At the other end of the spectrum, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that poor nutrition in the form of overfeeding can contribute to weight issues later in a child's life.

Intellectual Development and Education

A 2010 study from "The Journal of Nutrition" found that undernourished 2-year-olds were 16 percent more likely to fail at least one grade in school and entered school later than their well-nourished counterparts. The scientists behind the study determined that this could decrease the child's lifetime income by about 10 percent. The United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition says that even in mild or moderate situations, stunted growth resulting from poor nutrition is correlated with poor academic performance and lowered mental capacity.

Emotional and Psychological Development

Poor nutrition can pave the road to emotional or psychological development issues. Dr. Lawrence Wilson from the Center for Development has studied psychiatric issues in relationship to hair sample mineral analysis in children. Some minerals, such as calcium, have proved to be extremely important for emotional development. Wilson's research has shown developmental emotional issues related to autism, hyperactivity, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety are associated with some nutritional imbalances.

Behavioral Development

Dr. David E. Barrett, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, and Dr. Marian Radke-Yarrow, a National Institutes of Health child development psychologist, performed research focused on behavioral issues in 6- to 8-year-old children. Their research showed that social behaviors were even more susceptible to the negative effects of poor nutrition than learning functions were. The children in the study who had poor nutrition during the critical two-year period after birth appeared withdrawn, less active and were less helpful than their well-nourished counterparts.

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