Poor nutrition linked to aggressive behavior

Sound Consumer | August 2006

by Trudy Bialic, Editor

(August 2006) — Experts agree that good nutrition is necessary for proper physical development, and now research shows that good nutrition also is essential for proper social behavior.

A long-term study from the University of Southern California has found that malnutrition in the first few years of life leads to strikingly increased levels of antisocial and aggressive behavior as the person grows older.

For 14 years, researchers documented the nutritional, behavioral and cognitive development of more than 1,000 children who lived on Mauritius, an island off the coast of Africa. They first assessed the children at age 3, documenting nutritional indicators, intelligence and cognitive ability. Social workers visited their homes to factor in their overall living conditions, including the income, occupation, health, education and age of the parents.

The researchers then gathered information on how the children behaved at ages 8, 11 and 17 — whether they were irritable, lying, cheating, getting into fights, bullying others, destroying property or being deliberately cruel. Over time, a link emerged between malnourishment and antisocial or aggressive behavior.

Compared to other children in a control group without nutritional deficiencies, the malnourished children at age 8 showed a 41 percent increase in aggression. By age 17, they showed a 51 percent increase.

Four nutrients linked to brain development were implicated: zinc, iron, B vitamins and protein. Malnourished children weren’t getting what they needed to develop healthy nervous systems for mental and emotional health and stability.

The researchers say the findings have implications for the United States, where parents may be well advised to think carefully about what their kids are eating. Junk food, especially white flour and sugar, deplete the body of B vitamins, and many Americans have mineral deficiencies, especially zinc.

The experts agree that there’s more to antisocial behavior than nutrition, but it’s an important link. Good nutrition is a great investment for society as a whole. Nourishing our children well today could prevent problems tomorrow.

For details, see the American Journal of Psychiatry, ajp.psychiatryonline.org and do a Quick Search under the keywords “Malnutrition at Age 3 Years.”

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