The findings provide a positive slant to the often-held view that poor diet negatively influences early childhood development.
Nutrition is almost always linked to physical health but this study has shed light on nutritional benefits to social health and behaviour.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania began looking into a sample size of 1,795, three-year-old children from Mauritius.
Nutritional and social indicators
They focused on physical health related to inadequate nutrition - anaemia, iron deficiency, angular stomatitis and insufficient protein intake - as well as a number of indicators of social development.
These included friendliness, extent of verbalisation, active social play and exploratory behaviour. This was assessed by observing the child and assessing their behaviour based on a specified scale.
They found that children with indicators of malnutrition showed impaired social behaviour compared with children in the control group with adequate nutritional status.
Additional findings established a strong relationship between degree of malnutrition and degree of social behaviour, with increased malnutrition associated with more impaired social behaviour.
“The bigger message is give children good nutrition early on,” said Dr Jianghong Liu, an associate professor in Penn’s School of Nursing and Perelman School of Medicine.
“Not only will it enhance cognitive function but, importantly, promote good social behaviour, which is essential to brain development and intelligence.”
Source: Maternal & Child Nutrition
Published online ahead of print, DOI: 10.1111/mcn.12321
“Nutritional status and social behavior in preschool children: the mediating effects of neurocognitive functioning.”
Authors: Jianghong Liu, Adrian Raine