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Nutritional Deficiency's Impact on a Child's Learning Abilities

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Nutritional Deficiency's Impact on a Child's Learning Abilities

Mar 28, 2024

In the United States, 18 percent of children under the age of 18—13 million children—live in a home struggling to put healthy food on the table. Food insecurity can have long-lasting effects on young children, impacting their memory, social, and learning skills. Pediatrician Cindy Gellner, MD, talks about the steps you can take to help children in food-insecure homes, as well as what resources are available if you find yourself having difficulty providing food for your child.

Episode Transcript

Hunger is more than just missing a meal, and the psychological, emotional, and social impacts on children can have lasting negative effects.

It's something we've all heard about, either through the news or we've known a family going through a hard time that struggled with putting food on the table, but the problem is much more widespread in communities across the nation than most realize. Food insecurity, which is defined as the lack of food or sufficient quantities or quality of food needed for good health, affects almost 20% of homes with kids living in them.

In fact, statistics show that 18% of children under age 18, more than 13 million kids, live in food-insecure households. Children living in poverty often experience food insecurity in their homes.

Food Insecurity and Its Impact on Children

So why is this such a big deal when it comes to kids in school? Well, there have been a lot of studies on this topic in the past few years. They show that children who have food insecurity in early childhood are less likely to be ready to start kindergarten, compared to kids where there is plenty of healthy food in the home.

Many of these children had iron deficiency anemia due to poor diets when they were toddlers and preschoolers. And that has long-lasting effects and can even lead to impaired memory and social functioning more than 10 years later according to researchers.

The studies also show that children who don't have enough food in their homes also score lower on IQ tests. They have a harder time getting along with others and specifically have lower math and general achievement test scores than their peers who have enough food. They're more likely to repeat a grade and have issues with their physical and emotional health.

Students as young as kindergarten age who have food insecurity have poor reading performance and impaired social skills, and this can persist into the later grades. It's actually pretty alarming what these long-term studies are showing.

And it's not just the elementary school kids that are affected. Teens are at higher risk of mood disorders, behavior issues, substance use, and even suicide. Childhood food insecurity can last into adulthood. These adults may not know how to handle stressful situations because they didn't learn the coping skills they needed.

Resources and Assistance for Families Facing Food Insecurity

So what can you do to help these children who may have food insecurity? This can be a pretty touchy subject. The first is to use this as a learning opportunity for your children. Have them participate in food drives and be kind to kids in school who may not have enough money for lunches, or have a lot packed if they bring their lunches from home. If your child brings their lunch, pack a little extra for a friend who may not have as much in their lunch, and encourage your child to share.

And what if your family is struggling with food insecurity? Talk to your child's pediatrician. Often, we know of great resources where your family can get healthy nutritional food all year long in your community.


updated: March 28, 2024
originally published: December 18, 2018