Hunger and the Ability to Learn

Is there a link between a child’s ability to learn and how they eat? The Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy shows a link between nutrition and cognitive development. Cognitive development can be defined as the ability for the brain to develop so that learning becomes easier. Their statement includes these points:

  • Undernutrition (not getting enough to eat on a regular basis) and being poor can delay brain development and ability to learn. – The longer a child does not get enough to eat, the greater the chance of learning delays.
  • Iron-deficiency anemia (low iron in the blood), which affects nearly 25% of poor children, is linked with impaired ability to learn.
  • Poor children who attend school hungry perform worse on standardized tests than poor children who attended school well- fed.
  • Improved nutrition can change the effects of not getting enough to eat early in life.

When children do not get enough to eat, their bodies try to save this small amount of food energy. Energy is first used to keep basic body functions going, like the heart and lungs. Next, it is used for growth. Lastly, it is used for social activity and learning. Even if these children appear to have good physical growth, they may have social and learning delays from not having enough to eat.

Children who are more able to learn can lead more productive lives. They do better in school and are more able to learn about life, deal with its challenges and make better choices. In other words, better nourished children lead to a better society overall.

The effects of poor nutrition do not occur alone. Most often these children are poor and suffer from the effects of living in poverty. These could include poor housing and health care, lack of paid work for parents, and weakened family and community support systems. Nutrition is just one of the many factors that needs to be addressed.

The good news is that there are many programs that can help children become better nourished. There are programs that help pregnant women, since the effects of not getting enough to eat can begin in the womb. Programs that promote and support breast-feeding help women to give their babies’ brains the best start in life. There are school feeding programs that provide food for children at little or no cost. Community kitchens and food banks help people provide food for their children. As children become better nourished, they become better able to learn.

We all need to become aware of the link between hunger and the ability to learn. After all, it takes a whole community to raise a child. We can all benefit from healthy, well-fed children.

For more information, please contact your local Public Health Nutritionist.


Originator: Cathy Knox


“Statement on the Link Between Nutrition and Cognitive Development in Children,” The Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy: Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy, 1998.

“Child Nutrition and Cognitive Development – Speaking Points,” The Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy: Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy,1998.

“Nutrition and the Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Development of Infants and Young Children”, Meyers, Alan and Chawla, Neetu, Zero to Three, August/September 2000.