Food & Nutrition  |  Overview by Jarrah Eddy

Does poor nutritional status affect behaviour and social functioning in preschool children?

"Gut health is the key to overall health"

Early childhood is a crucial time when neurocognitive development and social skills are developed providing the basis for good health into adulthood. Good nutrition for this age group is crucial to support healthy social behaviour.1

Research has shown that poor nutritional status in early childhood can lead to impaired cognitive development and externalising behaviour even after controlling for social adversity. Nutritional supplementation has been shown to reduce behavioural problems in both early childhood and adolescence.1

A 2017 study set out to answer the question: is there a link between poor nutritional status and impaired social functioning in childhood and is it mediated by neurocognitive ability1?

The study recruited almost 1600 three-year-old children who were then examined for four early indicators of malnutrition1:

  • Sparse/thin hair – an indicator of protein malnutrition
  • Angular stomatitis – an indicator of Vitamin B2 and B3 deficiency
  • Hair dyspigmentation – an indicator of protein deficiency
  • Anaemia (measured by blood haemoglobin)

Nine variables were taken into account for psychosocial adversity including; uneducated mother or father, father semiskilled or unskilled, single parent status, separation of parents, large family size, poor health of the mother, teenaged mother or overcrowded home.1

Neurocognitive function was assessed using the Boehm Test of Basic Concepts – Pre School version.

The positive social behaviour measures were performed in a controlled laboratory setting and included1:

  • Exploratory behaviour (included playing with toys in the presence of their mother)
  • Extent of verbalisation to the research assistant
  • Friendliness with the person rating them during cognitive testing
  • Active social play with other children in a sandbox

The results of the study concluded that children with physical indicators of malnutrition at the age of three showed significantly lower levels of positive social functioning compared with controls.

Importantly, it was found that the malnutritionsocial behaviour relationship was mediated by neurocognitive ability. Malnutrition first impairs neurocognition and brain functioning which then affects the development of positive social functioning skills in children.1

The neurocognitive measures were found to be responsible for more than 55% of the malnutritionsocial behaviour relationship. Interestingly, anaemia was consistently associated with subscores of social behaviour, suggesting that anaemia was the most important indicator of malnutrition affecting social behaviour.1

Article kindly shared from BioConcepts.

1. Liu J RA. Nutritional status and social behaviour in preschool children: the mediating effects of neurocognitive functioning.
Matern Child Nutr. 2017;13(2). doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2012.12.037. Reactivity.




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