Food insecurity may hinder children’s mental and physical development: Review

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

The recent recession in Europe led to unemployment, debt, and housing arrears—all of which could make food less affordable for households. ©iStock
The recent recession in Europe led to unemployment, debt, and housing arrears—all of which could make food less affordable for households. ©iStock

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Unreliable access to affordable, nutritious food has a significant bearing on a child's behaviour, academic performance and emotional well-being, a review has determined.

The evidence summarised in the review demonstrates that food insecurity (FI), even if only temporary, is associated with children's developmental & behavioural progress from infancy to adolescence.

This effect was observed across western industrialised countries and even after accounting for influential variables.

The findings place much credence to interventions designed to provide children with a good nutritional start to life. 

The school food standards in the UK apply to all maintained schools and academies founded before 2010 and after June 2014.

They must provide high-quality meat, poultry or oily fish, fruit and vegetables and bread, other cereals and potatoes.

Drinks with added sugar, crisps, chocolate or sweets in school meals and vending machines along with more than 2 portions of deep-fried, battered or breaded food a week are not permitted.

"Our findings suggest child nutrition programs which are known to decrease food insecurity, may enhance the potential of children to learn, pay attention, and experience better emotional health,"​ explained co-author Dr Deborah Frank, professor in Child Health and Well-Being at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM).

Food insecurity in Europe

children child childhood nutrition diet health Tijana87
According to EuroStat data, Ireland and Portugal were strongly affected by the financial crisis, yet between 2009 and 2012, food insecurity rose by 1·8% points in Ireland but actually dropped in Portugal.©iStock/Tijana87

The rise of food insecurity in Europe has been strongly associated with malnutrition and a deterioration of mental health, an impaired ability to manage disease, and more seriously child health.

In 2013–14, the Trussell Trust, a UK network of food banks, supplied food to more than 900,000 adults and children, a 163%​ increase from the preceding year.

Rises in the number of people seeking emergency food support have also been reported​ by Greek, Spanish, and French charities.

This latest review consisted of 23 peer-reviewed articles looking at connections between FI and child developmental and behavioural outcomes in Western nations.

These outcomes included early cognitive development, academic performance, inattention and depression in four groups, infants and toddlers, pre-schoolers, school age, and adolescents.

Various approaches to measuring food insecurity were also defined and variables were accounted for across the studies.

Findings of concern

The team’s findings made for grim reading as the studies looking at infants and toddlers suggested that FI contributed to developmental delays, mental proficiency and low cognitive assessment scores.

Work looking into preschool children established a link between FI, externalising and internalising behaviours and mental health symptoms.

School-aged children suffered an impaired academic performance, increased hyperactivity, inattention, aggressive behaviour, emotional problems and less adaptive interpersonal relations.

Finally, adolescents exhibited anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, attempted suicide, dysthymia and substance use disorders.

“The evidence summarised here should encourage developmental behavioural health providers to screen for food insecurity in their practices and intervene when possible,”​ the review concluded.

“Conversely, children whose families are identified as food insecure in primary care settings warrant enhanced developmental behavioural assessment and possible intervention.”

Source: Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics

Published online ahead of print: DOI: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000383

“Association of Food Insecurity with Children's Behavioral, Emotional, and Academic Outcomes: A Systematic Review.”

Authors: Shankar, Priya MPH; Chung, Rainjade BA; Frank, Deborah A. MD

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