N U T R I T I O N   A C T I O N

Nutrition Impacts Cognition and Learning

Nutrition has a tremendous impact on every aspect of child development; and often, physical development receives the most attention. You may talk with children about the importance of drinking milk for strong teeth and bones or how eating carrots supports eye health. It is important to emphasize these relationships to children so they begin to understand the link between physical health and diet.

The relationship between diet and cognitive development is also important. Proper nutrition is essential to learning, thinking, and cognitive perception. Researchers have found links between nutrition and brain development, cognitive function, curiosity, behavior, and communication and social skills.

Nutrition and Learning

Child nutrition begins before birth. The quality of a pregnant mother’s diet has a direct influence on a baby’s birth weight and brain size. Children who were malnourished before birth can have behavioral and cognitive problems, such as language and fine motor delays and lower IQs.

Nutrition is important throughout life but young children’s development is particularly sensitive to the effects of an inadequate diet. Even mild undernourishment can seriously affect young children.

Children who are undernourished may be aggressive, passive, anxious, or listless. They may be withdrawn from peers and caregivers or irritable and may also have problems with attachment, play, and interactions with others. All of these behaviors negatively affect a child’s ability to learn.

Children who have inadequate diets are also more susceptible to childhood illnesses because their bodies lack the immune system support and energy that a proper diet provides. Therefore, they tend to be frequently absent from childcare and often miss the social interactions, educational activities, and nutrition provided in early childhood programs.

Which Nutrients Affect Children’s Cognitive Development?

Young children need well-balanced diets that include appropriate amounts of food from all of the food groups. Breast milk or formula satisfies the nutritional needs of infants. Research indicates there are cognitive benefits for babies who are breastfed.

Children who are nutritionally deprived tend to be deficient in multiple nutrients. Some nutrients are known to specifically affect cognitive development and brain function, including fat, DHA, iron, and iodine.

Fat, such as the fat in whole milk, is essential in children’s diets because it is important for development of the nervous system. DHA is a fatty acid that is associated with brain and nervous system development during pregnancy and infancy. Research indicates that infants who have higher levels of DHA in their blood score higher on tests of cognitive function.

Iron deficiency anemia is a problem for many young children, particularly those living in poverty. Iron deficiency can have extremely serious adverse effects on children’s cognitive function, attention span, and memory. However, too much iron can also be problematic; so it is important to encourage families to have their healthcare provider regularly check their child’s iron levels.

Iodine deficiency during early childhood has been linked to problems with cognition and achievement in studies conducted with older children. Fortunately, iodine deficiency is not common in the U.S.

Why Do Children Lack Adequate Nutrition?

Often malnutrition is related to poverty. With the declining economy, more families are becoming financially insecure, which can negatively impact children’s nutritional status. It has been estimated that approximately 15 percent of households in the U.S. were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.4 percent with very low food security.

Depending on the individual situation, families in poverty (including homeless families) may lack kitchen facilities, transportation to grocery stores, or money to buy food. Consequently, their food purchases may have decreased in nutritional quality as they buy smaller quantities or cheaper foods.
In some cases, poor nutrition may not be related to poverty, but is the result of cultural beliefs or lack of knowledge about the nutritional needs of young children. Some families, because of personal preference or because of misinformation, may subscribe to a diet that does not provide adequate nutrition for a young child’s needs.

How Can Childcare Providers Help?

Childcare providers can have a positive impact on children’s cognitive development and their nutritional status. This is important for all young children, but particularly those who live in poverty or who may be at risk for poor eating habits.

If your childcare program serves families who are expecting babies, support those families with information about the importance of prenatal nutrition to their baby’s development. Your childcare program can also support lactating mothers with a quiet place to breastfeed.

You can assist families who are struggling financially by helping them access community resources like food pantries, WIC, and clinics that provide nutritional services and resources for families.

Educate your childcare staff about the relationship between cognitive development and nutrition. Check with your local health center or Cooperative Extension office for information and resources.

Finally, review your program’s menus to make sure you are providing appropriate nutrition. Ask your local Cooperative Extension educator, health center dietician, or state nutrition consultant for ideas to incorporate into your meals and snacks.

Marna Holland, EdD
State-licensed educator in birth-kindergarten, health, and physical education
Asheville, NC


Children’s Nutrition, Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, www.scaany.org/resources/documents/childhealthseries_nutrition.pdf

How Does Nutrition Affect the Developing Brain?, Zero to Three, www.zerotothree.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ter_key_brainFAQ

The Links Between Nutrition and Cognitive Development, EECom Marin Food System Project, www.eecom.net/mfsp/projects_school_links.pdf

Mealtime Memo for Child Care: Nutrition and Cognitive Development, National Food Service Management Institute. The University of
Mississippi, www.nfsmi.org/documentLibraryFiles/PDF/20080612091850.pdf

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