20 July, 2024

How hunger affects children’s growth and functioning

September 15, 2022

How hunger affects children’s growth and functioning

There is a valid saying that ‘You can’t teach a hungry child’ and there is abundant research to support this notion. Poor nutrition directly affects a child’s thinking skills, behaviour and health and these are all factors that impact academic performance.  Conversely, access to a balanced, energy-rich diet including a variety of foods, have been shown to improve a child’s cognition, concentration and energy levels.

The functioning of the human brain is sensitive to temporary variations in the availability of nutrients. Hunger, therefore leads to lower cognition not only in the short term but sustained spells of hunger may have longer term negative effects on the brain too.

This concern is even more relevant in low-income communities where children may not only suffer from hunger but also poor health as well. Poor-quality diets are likely to be nutrient-deficient, and many vitamins, minerals and fatty acids play an essential role in brain development and immunity. A child who is susceptible to illness is likely to have learning issues if they have to miss school.

The impact of good nutrition also has a positive effect on children’s psychosocial well-being and this in turn can reduce incidences of aggression and other discipline issues at school.

The value of breakfast

Breakfast is possibly the most important meal for children. It is the meal that breaks the overnight fast and the replenishment of blood glucose levels will help a child to be more focussed at school.  Going without food in the morning has a direct impact on children’s cognition, which is a complex set of higher mental functions the brain carries out, such as memory, thinking, learning, and perception.

Here are some simple ideas for a well- balanced, energy-rich breakfast for children:

  • Hot or cold instant maize, oats or sorghum porridge (vitamin-enriched) with milk and a banana.
  • Baked beans or cooked eggs on toast with an orange.
  • Vitamin-enriched cereal with milk or yoghurt and some fruit juice.
  • A smoothie made with banana, cereal, milk and peanut butter.


It is therefore evident that children’s diets should be rich in a wide variety of minimally processed foods from all the major food groups. This will help ensure healthy brain development, sound academic performance and overall long-term good health.

Author: Feed the Nation

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