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Malnutrition's Effect on Child Development

Author: Macquin Anduwan

Malnutrition is one of the most important health issues faced globally. It accounts for the highest mortality among children and affects nearly a billion individuals around the world [1]. The past two decades have well documented the effects of malnutrition in children, yet despite advances in food accessibility, the current food systems and poor dieting continue to present a large issue, affecting about one in every three children under the age of five – roughly 200 million – are either undernourished or overweight [1].

In the South Pacific region, several island countries have a high prevalence of stunting in children under 5 years. Most of these Pacific Island Countries (PICs) also have high rates of overweight and obesity among children five years of age and adolescents. Additionally, high rates of anemia are present among children under five years and among 15 - to 49-year-old women in every Pacific Island Country [1].

Malnutrition is defined as an insufficient dietary intake of nutrients and energy such as vitamins, minerals, protein, and essential amino acids that are required to provide for the body’s growth, maintenance, and specific functions [2]. Where one of the essential nutrients are lacking in the diet, development, or impairment of metabolic processes have been seen to occur. In young, developing children, these may lead to any number of developmental abnormalities and long-lasting physiological effects, some of which, are epigenetic, being able to pass onto the next generation [2].

The first two years of a child’s life are said to be the most important in development [3]. Undernourishment in this period may have long-lasting effects on the child’s future development. Many articles and studies usually discuss the physical, behavioral, cognitive, and immunological impairment; and retardation of these processes [2], [4].

Physical effects such as stunting are often commonly seen in children with an insufficient intake of proteins and essential amino acids. An article released in 2019 also studied the fine motor skill development in children suffering from malnutrition [5]. It concluded that a delayed development in this sphere may lead to increased motor function in reading and writing, as well as other motor skills such as gripping and impulsive movements [5].

Due to the physical results of malnutrition, many undernourished children often experienced poor mental development, poor academic performance, and behavioral abnormalities growing up [2].

The sound structural and functional pathology of the brain is also dependent upon proper nutrition. A diet lacking in adequate nutrients would therefore lead to stunted growth, which would result in impairment of the growth rate and development of the cognitive processes during childhood (>5 years of age) [4].

As seen in a study carried out in 2008, the researchers studied how chronic protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) would affect cognitive development during the childhood of children (>5 years). This revealed that malnourished children performed poorly in tests of attention, learning, and retention of memory, and visuospatial ability except on the test of motor speed and coordination [4]. Age-related improvement was observed on tests of attention, visual perception, and verbal comprehension in malnourished children despite a deficiency in comparison to the performance level of well-nourished children [4].

Natural immunity in undernourished children was also compromised. Many of these children displayed lower immunity due to the impairment of their physiological processes. These included an increased susceptibility to fat accumulation, often around the waist, lower oxidation of fats, lower resting and postprandial energy expenditure, insulin resistance in adulthood, hypertension, and dyslipidemia, and being more susceptible to infections [2].

An article looking at the effects of malnutrition on a country’s economy also suggested that economies would perform much better with lower rates of malnutrition [6]. This study was based on the idea that malnourished students would not be able to perform well academically, and hence, become employees unable to reach their full potential.

This demanding public health concern must be addressed by respective governments. In order to curb this public health problem, governments can use a wide array of policies from voluntary to mandatory. These may include new legislatures such as bills, laws, acts, statutes, or through agency implementations, guidelines, or directives through institutions [7].

Dariush Mozaffarian and his colleagues reviewed different government policies that could improve nutrition and health. They stated that in reality, this public health concern is multifactorial. Any government intervention taking place must take into consideration nutrition’s intricate web of relationships. This can be done by directly targeting malnutrition, while also targeting other direct or indirect factors through their own categories and policies [7].

Globally, diets are recognized as both a cause of and solution to the burden of malnutrition. Although modern development has brought about wealth and easier accessibility to food products, there are still many who are undernourished. Children, in particular, need more attention in their daily dietary intake, being those deficiencies early on, lead to challenges faced afterward as the child matures.


  1. "Poor diets damaging children’s health in the Pacific, warns UNICEF," UNICEF, 15 October 2019. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 27 November 2020].

  2. V. J. B. Martins, T. M. M. T. Florencio, L. P. Grillo, M. d. C. P. Franco, P. A. Martins, A. P. G. Clemente, C. D. L. Santos, M. d. F. A. Vieira and A. L. Sawaya, "Long-Lasting Effects of Undernutrition," International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 8, no. 6, pp. 1817-1846, 2011.

  3. UNICEF, "The State of the World's Children 2019: Children, Food and Nutrition," UNICEF, 2019. [Online]. Available:'s%20Children%202019:%20Children,%20food%20and%20nutrition.pdf. [Accessed 27 November 2020].

  4. B. R. Kar, S. L. Rao and B. A. Chandramouli, "Cognitive development in children with chronic protein energy malnutrition," Behavioral and Brain Functions, vol. 4, no. 31, 2008.

  5. A. Gabrielle dos Santos da Costa and J. L. C. Neto, "Fine motor development in children with chronic malnutrition," Cadernos Brasileiros de Terapia Ocupacional, vol. 27, no. 1, 2019.

  6. X. Wang and K. Taniguchi, "Does better nutrition enhance economic growth?," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 29 November 2020].

  7. D. Mozaffarian, S. Y. Angell, T. Lang and J. A. Rivera, "Role of government policy in nutrition—barriers to and opportunities for healthier eating," BMJ, 13 June 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 29 November 2020].

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