Hungry children: What happens to their behavior?

Fritzie Rodriguez

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Aside from affecting physical growth and development, the claws of hunger also rip children of their confidence and sunny disposition

HUNGER AND CHILD BEHAVIOR. Doctors observe that malnourished children are more irritable, lethargic, and apathetic than well-nourished kids. Photo by Jez Aznar/AFP

MANILA, Philippines – Malnutrition among children not only manifests in poor physical health, but may also show in poor social and emotional behavior.

Most people recall their childhood with fond memories of adventures, playmates, laughter, and unfailing energy. However, for children who lack proper nutrition, their days seem dimmer and less exciting.

Much attention is given to the impacts of hunger on children’s physical growth; however, there is also a need to examine how the claws of hunger can rip children of their optimism and sunny disposition.

The prevalence of underweight children barely changed in the span of 8 years, according to the latest National Nutrition Survey (NNS) by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology (FNRI-DOST).

Prevalence of underweight children
Age Group20032011
0-5 years old 20.7% 20.2%
5-10 years old 32.1% 32%


Do these figures reflect not only an undernourished youth population, but also an unenthusiastic one?

In line with the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the prevalence of underweight children under 5 years old should decrease to 13.6% in 2015, according to FNRI-DOST.

Hunger and child behavior

“Malnourished children lack energy, so they become less curious and playful and communicate less with the people around them, which impairs their physical, mental and cognitive development,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Dr Odessa del Rosario of the Philippine Children’s Medical Center (PCMC) also observed behavioral changes among malnourished patients.

“They seem lethargic, weak, irritable, and very apathetic,” Del Rosario said. These children engage in fewer physical activities and social interactions, their academic performance may also suffer.

“When we see patients like this, we try to stimulate them with toys. We encourage parents to play with the child too,” she added.

Aside from proper nutrition, she also emphasized the importance of “emotional stimulation” as part of a child’s proper upbringing.

Del Rosario observed that once these children start eating healthier and gaining weight, they also gradually gain a better disposition. “They smile and play more.”

Nutrient deficiencies and moods

WHO sees a link between nutrient deficiency and neurological disorders.

Micronutrient deficiencies in minerals like selenium and zinc are linked to depression and adverse mood states. Iodine deficiency disorders can also affect a child’s social and human development.

Selenium is needed for proper thyroid function, while zinc is essential for building proteins and maintaining a healthy immune system. Foods rich in selenium and zinc include seafood, lean meat, and nuts.

WHO recommends 3 ways parents can combat nutrient deficiency among children:

  • Diversification – Include other micronutrient-rich food items in the diet
  • Supplementation – Add a supplement of the micronutrients
  • Fortification – Purchase products fortified with vitamins and minerals (i.e., iodized salt, fortified rice)

Early malnutrition and personality as adults

A study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in 2013 explored the impact of malnutrition during the first year of life on personality traits during adulthood.

Participants aged 40, who suffered from malnutrition as infants, scored low on “extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness” compared to their well-nourished counterparts.

The participants also reported more “anxiety, vulnerability, shyness, lowered sociability, less intellectual curiosity, greater suspiciousness of others, a more egocentric than altruistic orientation, and a lowered sense of efficacy or competence.”

Meanwhile, WHO said that macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein, fat), iron, and iodine deficiencies have substantial negative effects not only on cognition, but also on behavior and achievement.

These negative effects may linger from a child’s early years until adulthood.

Food insecure children

In the Philippines, the national average of children experiencing food insecurity is 22.9%, according to the 2011 NNS of FNRI-DOST.

Among all regions, the highest number of food insecure children (64.3%) is found in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The 1996 World Food Summit defines “food security” as a state “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Food insecurity among households may impair parent-child relationships, according to a 2006 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The inability to provide food can threaten a mother’s confidence – which then causes “maternal distress” in the form of anxiety, sadness, irritability, and preoccupation. This, in return, could negatively affect a child’s behavior.

Food insecurity may also cause “psychological stress” among children. The study suggested that early stress in life may increase one’s risk of developing mental health problems in the future. Food insecurity during childhood may, in fact, be a form of early life stress.

Most children suffering from hunger come from families living in poverty. When both parents and children are chronically hungry, the home may become a space of either indifference or hostility.

This situation may perpetuate a cycle of ignorance of proper nutrition – parents who lack knowledge about nutrition are unable to take care of their own and their children’s health; these children may then carry the same inability until they grow up and start their own families. Hence the unending cycle.

Children, among the poorest

POOR CHILDREN. Children are among the poorest basic sectors in the Philippines. Photo by Jay Directo/AFP

Among the 9 basic sectors, children (35.1%) have the 3rd highest poverty incidence in the Philippines – next to farmers (36.7%) and fishermen (41.4%), according to the latest basic sector poverty statistics from the National Statistical Coordination Board in 2009. 

Among the basic sectors, children accounted for the largest number of the country’s poor population. The magnitude of poor children as of 2009 was 12,414,811 – more than half of the country’s total magnitude of poor (23,142,481) for that year.

Given these numbers, one can wonder about the levels of stress poor Filipino children are experiencing. These numbers may also explain why some children choose work over schooling. They want to contribute to the family income, or they simply want to eat and survive.

Some children end up engaging in hazardous labor, desperate attempts, or criminal activities just to put food on the table. In the process, they may be exposed to bad influences and traumatic experiences.

Del Rosario advised parents to “continuously provide their children with nutritional and emotional support; otherwise, the cycle of hunger and poverty will never end.” –

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