Nutritional status and social behavior in preschool children: the mediating effects of neurocognitive functioning

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Abstract

Early malnutritional status has been associated with reduced cognitive ability in childhood. However, there are almost no studies on the effect of malnutrition on positive social behavior, and no tests of possible mediating mechanisms. This study tests the hypothesis that poor nutritional status is associated with impaired social functioning in childhood, and that neurocognitive ability mediates this relationship. We assessed 1553 male and female 3-year-olds from a birth cohort on measures of malnutrition, social behavior and verbal and spatial neurocognitive functions. Children with indicators of malnutrition showed impaired social behavior (p < .0001) as compared with children in the control group with adequate nutritional status. These associations even persisted after controlling for social adversity and parental education. Findings were not moderated by gender or ethnicity, and there was no interaction effect with parental education. A dose–response relationship was observed between degree of malnutrition and degree of social behavior, with increased malnutrition associated with more impaired social behavior. Neurocognitive ability was found to mediate the nutrition–social behavior relationship. The mediation effect of neurocognitive functioning suggests that poor nutrition negatively impacts brain areas that play important roles in developing positive social behavior. Findings suggest that reducing poor nutrition, alternatively promoting good nutrition, may help promote positive social behavior in early childhood during a critical period for social and neurocognitive development, with implications for improving positive health in adulthood.

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