One in six children aged eight to 14 years in Australia report going to school or bed hungry, according to a new report by the Australian Child Wellbeing Project (ACWP).
These children are up to three times more likely to report two or more health complaints per week such as headaches, stomach aches, sleeplessness, feeling low, nervous or irritable. They are also more likely to be bullied regularly.
Children in marginalised groups, such as low income, Indigenous and disabled, were most likely to be affected.
According to the report, Australia has a high proportion of children living in poverty compared to the best performing OECD nations and it has not improved in recent years.
Children who go hungry may experience a number of adversities that are likely to impact on their physical and emotional wellbeing. However there is evidence to suggest that hunger and malnutrition by itself may impact on children’s mental health.
Harming children’s wellbeing
A survey of American children from low-income families reported that those who experienced frequent hunger were more likely to have emotional, behavioural and academic problems than children from the same low-income communities who didn’t experience hunger. These associations were particularly strong for aggression and anxiety.
Another American study found that child hunger was independently associated with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
A study in Bombay found that 129 children who had suffered early malnourishment had lower IQ and a 60% rate of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) compared to 15% in control children from the same classrooms. It is of concern that these problems persisted into adulthood.
A large cohort of 1,500 children from the island of Mauritius was assessed for malnutrition at age three. When they were followed up at ages eight, 11 and 17, children who were malnourished had lower IQ and more antisocial and aggressive behaviour. These associations were independent of psycho-social adversity.
Selected children from this cohort were enrolled in a preschool enrichment program that provided nutrition, education, and physical activity. 14-20 years later these children had healthier brain development and reduced psychopathology compared with matched controls who didn’t take part in the program. The benefits were more pronounced in the children who had been malnourished, suggesting that addressing nutrition is both critical for healthy development and is possible with an appropriately targeted pre-school program.
How going to bed hungry can impact on a child’s mental health
It is well known that severe nutritional deficiency can have a range of negative effects for our brains. For instance iodine was discovered as the most preventable cause of severe mental retardation and brain damage.
However, even mild to moderate iodine deficiency has been associated with lower cognitive performance. Low folate levels may be associated with depression and suboptimal nutrient levels in children may contribute to symptoms of ADHD. While omega-3 fatty acids may improve mental health across the lifespan.
Nutritional supplementation for school-aged children who have poor diets has been shown to improve cognition and behaviour. Improving the nutrition status of children with ADHD may reduce learning and behavioural symptoms.
In a placebo-controlled trial, daily vitamin-mineral supplementation was able to reduce violent behaviour of juvenile offenders by 40%. Even in school children aged six to 12 years, vitamin-mineral supplementation over four months reduced the number of antisocial behaviours by 47%.
These studies provide proof of concept for the importance of nutrients for mental health.
It has been suggested that sub-clinical levels of nutrients may manifest in psychological symptoms before overt physical symptoms of nutritional deficiency become obvious.
If 15% of children in Australia are going hungry and not meeting their nutritional needs for healthy development, what is the impact on their quality of life, academic achievement, societal costs?
What can we do?
The demand for food relief in Australia is continuing to rise. Foodbank provides food relief to 473,000 people each month – and 35% are children.
However, in 2013, of the people that food relief agencies helped, 65% did not get all they needed and agencies need a great deal more food to meet the demand.
The majority of people seeking food relief are not homeless. Many families get caught up in vicious cycles of running out of money for food before each payday.
There is a misconception that healthy food is expensive. However a recent cost-analysis of usual diets compared to a healthy plant-based (modified Mediterranean) revealed that the healthy diet was cheaper.
Perhaps more schools can help by bringing back home economics and cooking lessons for children or offering healthy school breakfasts.
Food security needs to be made a priority public policy issue, as all Australians should have the opportunity to enjoy the fundamental human right of being able to access adequate, healthy food.
Natalie Parletta, Senior Research Fellow: nutrition, mental and physical health, University of South Australia and Leonie Segal, Professor of Health Economics at the School of Population Health, University of South Australia