Skipped meals, diets with inadequate nutrition, and other forms of hunger have negative effects on overall health at any age, but children are particularly susceptible. Childhood hunger exacerbates kids’ risk for health problems like asthma and anemia and can result in mental health struggles, behavioral issues, and academic underperformance.
Here’s an exploration of these effects of hunger, why nutrition is so important for children, and what healthy eating looks like for kids.
Hunger is an urgent issue in the United States and it affects millions of children across the nation. Feeding America reports that in 2019, more than ten million US children faced hunger, while in 2020, that number rose to twelve million. These concerning numbers represent children who not only experience food insecurity, but also the negative effects on their lives that come with it.
The Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) emphasizes the impacts of food insecurity on the physical, mental, and emotional health of children. It is “especially detrimental to the health, development, and well-being of children in the short and long terms,” and has been associated with the following health conditions in children:
- Behavioral and social-emotional problems
- Developmental risk
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Lower health-related quality of life
- Lower physical functioning
- Mental health problems
- Poor educational performance and academic outcomes
An interrelated food problem that children may face is that of malnutrition. Johns Hopkins Medicine provides this malnutrition definition: “Malnutrition is the condition that develops when the body is deprived of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients it needs to maintain healthy tissues and organ function.” The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes three broad groups of malnutrition conditions:
- Undernutrition, which includes wasting (low weight-for-height), stunting (low height-for-age), and underweight (low weight-for-age)
- Micronutrient-related malnutrition, which includes micronutrient deficiencies (a lack of important vitamins and minerals) or micronutrient excess
- Overweight, obesity, and diet-related noncommunicable diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers)
Malnutrition in children occurs more often for those in poverty. Families unable to afford healthy food may only be able to purchase lower cost, less nutritious food, or may need to cut back on meals to pay for other necessities. This resulting lack of proper nutrition can lead to micronutrient-related malnutrition or obesity, both of which have concerning health effects for children.
A study of the consequences of hunger on children reported a host of physical, mental, and behavioral effects, finding that nutrient deficiencies “are known to impair learning and cause decreased productivity in school-age children, and maternal depressive disorders,” and that they “directly undermine students’ cognitive capacities.” These negative impacts highlight the need for proper childhood nutrition.
Nutrition for Kids
Childhood nutritional needs can vary by age, with certain nutrients becoming more important at different stages of development. However, healthy eating for kids does have some key consistencies across the board. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends these foods with important childhood nutrients:
- Whole-grain foods with carbohydrates, fiber, and B-vitamins
- Fruits and vegetables with vitamins A and C, potassium, and fiber
- Low-fat dairy foods with protein, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus
- Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and beans or nuts with protein, iron, zinc and B-vitamins
Healthy meals for kids should include these nutrients and avoid calories from added sugar, saturated and trans fats, and sodium. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that “empty calories from added sugars and solid fats contribute to 40% of daily calories for children and adolescents age 2–18 years—affecting the overall quality of their diets.”
Given the impacts that hunger and poor nutrition can have on children as they grow, it’s crucial that kids around the US have access to good food when they need it. Programs like school breakfasts can help during the school year, while federal food assistance like CalFresh can bolster families’ food buying capacities year-round.
We at the SLO Food Bank believe that everyone has the right to nutritious food. We work with a network of community partners in San Luis Obispo to alleviate hunger and to build a stronger community. If you’re in the area, check out our Food Locator to find food sources near you, or support our cause through volunteer opportunities or donations, if you are able to give. With reliable access to wholesome food, we are all healthier, happier, and more productive members of our communities. Donate today to help us bring health and happiness to San Luis Obispo County!