effects of hunger on the body and child development

Effects of Hunger on Children’s Development

When we think of childhood hunger, we think about kids being tired, cranky or unfocused in class and at home. But for the millions of children suffering from hunger, there are serious, long-term effects.

Studies have shown that hunger isn’t a short-term issue; rather, childhood hunger can have a devastating domino effect that produces severe and lasting physical and psychological consequences. There is a deep relationship between hunger and health, and the impact of even a short period of childhood hunger can last a lifetime.

Children and Hunger

Millions of children in the U.S. live with hunger, and many people are often unaware that children regularly go hungry in their own neighborhoods, schools and cities.

The latest research can help us learn more about the numerous effects of hunger on children’s growth and development, as well as help us better understand how it prevents children across the U.S. from reaching their full potential.

Cognitive Development and Mental Health 

A child who experiences hunger will inevitably face challenges in school, but it can also impact their learning and development long before their first day of kindergarten. 

In fact, children can be affected by hunger even before they’re born. Research shows that low prenatal iron levels can be linked to challenges with language comprehension and following directions during the first five years of a child’s life. Iron deficiencies in infants and toddlers have been connected to measurable developmental delays, and it prevents school-age children from being successful in the classroom. When school children lack healthy nutrients, it undermines their ability to reason, think and remember information. 

But hunger affects more than a child’s cognitive development. It’s among the most serious risk factors for mental health challenges. Researchers have found that childhood hunger is a predictor of depression in adolescence and young adulthood and may also play a part in contributing to mood, behavior and substance abuse disorders. For children that experience hunger very early in life, there may be a negative impact on the healthy attachments they form with their parents and caregivers, which can also lead to mental health issues in the future. 

Stress and Health Outcomes

A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics noted the toxic nature of early life stress and how it can significantly contribute to adverse health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma, autoimmune conditions, and more. Because childhood hunger activates the stress response, it can induce a whole host of negative health outcomes that persist through adulthood. 

Even just a handful of “episodes” of hunger can put young people at risk. One major analysis found that children living with hunger had a measurably higher risk of developing health problems within the next 10 years. The resulting issues vary in type and severity, but they all have one thing in common: they affect a child’s quality of life.


Although scientists state that there is still much to learn about how childhood hunger affects weight, some studies demonstrate a connection between hunger and childhood obesity. Researchers have suggested that there are many related factors , ranging from how hunger impacts feeding styles to the limited types of foods that are often available for children living with hunger.

Nutrient and Vitamin Deficiencies

Because the first five years of a child’s life is a period of rapid mental and physical development, a child can experience permanent negative health outcomes without the proper nutritional building blocks. Low energy levels, mood and behavior changes, weight loss, and diminished immunity are just some of the ways a lack of nutrients can harm a child. 

A long list of diseases and health conditions can stem from nutritional deficiencies, including iron-deficiency anemia, rickets, cancer, stroke, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, osteoporosis, and more. For young children, nutritional deficiencies early on in life can result in stunted growth. 

How Can the Effects of Childhood Hunger Persist Later in Life?

The long-term effects of childhood hunger are not necessarily widely known, so we tend to think of the short-term problems. Unfortunately, a growing body of research shows us that childhood hunger leaves lasting scars on physical and mental wellness - making it even more critical that we find a sustainable solution as soon as possible.

Connecting children in need with nutritious food programs is crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty and improving overall health outcomes. Nutrition programs can provide access to healthy food and help ensure that children receive the proper nutrients for growth and development. This not only helps to alleviate the immediate effects of hunger but also helps to prevent long-term health problems.

Everyone can play a role in ending childhood hunger. Donating to organizations like No Kid Hungry, volunteering, and advocating for policies that support access to healthy food can all help to connect children in need with the nutrition they require to succeed.

You Can Provide Meals for Children in Need - Join No Kid Hungry

Comprehending the implications of childhood hunger can inspire action - and there are many ways you can help

No Kid Hungry is dedicated to ending childhood hunger in the U.S., and we can work together to have a meaningful impact through fundraising, education and political advocacy. And adults aren’t the only ones that can make a difference. Kids and teens can be a force for change as well. Even a single donation contributes to our mission by funding programs that target hunger across America.

By donating to No Kid Hungry, you can join the effort to solve the problem of childhood hunger and be a part of the solution today.



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