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Are well-fed children undernourished?

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  • Are well-fed children undernourished

In Australia, we do not tend to have the concern of limited access to safe foods, so it is often considered that children are not at risk of being malnourished and suffering the consequences of many overt deficiencies. However, despite the consumption of sufficient (and at times excessive) calories, are they being starved of the micronutrients needed for optimal health and wellbeing? And, are these compounding insufficiencies manifesting as more subtle challenges that the population fails to recognise as being linked to diet? Such as issues with social development, behaviour and academic performance? 

It is well established that specific nutrients play essential roles in growth and development, immune and organ function. However, if we look to just a small number of recent studies, the evidence also shows that good nutrition positively affects social development, with poor nutrition negatively impacting brain areas that play important roles in developing positive social behaviour,[1] while a healthy diet appears to boost children’s reading skills.[2

Furthermore, investigations into specific nutritional imbalances reveal negative influences over multiple factors. For example, poor B12 status in babies is associated with more difficulties solving cognitive tests (e.g. doing puzzles, recognising letters and interpreting other children’s feelings) at five years of age,[3] while copper/zinc imbalance (e.g. insufficient zinc) has been associated with the symptoms of ADHD (e.g. inattention).[4]

These findings are not surprising considering the roles we know nutrients to play in brain and cognitive development, normal neurotransmitter synthesis and function and a healthy mood.

Results obtained by the Australian Bureau of Statistics demonstrate that children (and adults) are largely falling short of consuming the recommended servings of nutrient-dense foods, which is likely contributing to more commonly observed health challenges. Alarmingly, less than 1% of children aged two to 18 years are meeting the recommended serves of vegetables/legumes/beans, while only 31% were consuming sufficient fruits, and only 4.5% are meeting the recommended intake of lean meats and alternatives.[5] It appears that calorie-dense, nutrient-depleted foods are being consumed in the place of these fundamental and healthy options,[5] resulting in greater risks of not only being overweight, but also certain nutrient insufficiencies/deficiencies (e.g. zinc, magnesium, iron, iodine, B12).

In order for parents to support the physical, cognitive and emotional health of their children, a focus on nutrient-dense foods must be prioritised, with the aim of achieving the recommended servings of vegetables, fruit and lean meats and wholegrains.

In certain situations, achievement of the recommendations may prove difficult. And, in these cases, supplementation may be warranted. Fussy children, active children, those with noted deficiencies and poor appetite are examples of those who may benefit, in addition to certain children presenting with behavioural and cognitive challenges (under the guidance of a health professional, as further therapies may also be indicated e.g. occupational therapy). 

The amino acids found in healthy protein sources such as whey, brown rice and pea proteins can assist in achieving the ideal consumption of essential amino acids required for thousands of reactions throughout the body (e.g. muscle health, detoxification processes, thyroid function, neurotransmitter synthesis, enzyme productions, plus skin hair and nail health). Furthermore, zinc is noted to be essential for the functioning of over 300 enzymes in the body, supporting healthy immune function, digestive function, skin healing and mood/cognitive health. Magnesium, along with calcium, vitamin D (a common deficiency) and amino acids, support brain and mood health, whilst also assisting in the growth and development of the musculoskeletal system. In fact, an Italian study in 2014 showed that supplementation with certain vitamins and minerals can reduce growing pains, a condition which can affect up to 49.4% of children.[6

In conclusion, our well-fed children may still be starved of good nutrition, and closer attention needs to paid to meeting the recommended intake of healthy foods and essential micro-nutrients in order to maximise health.


  1. Liu J, Raine A. Nutritional status and social behavior in preschool children: the mediating effects of neurocognitive functioning. Matern Child Nutr 2017;13(2). [Full Text]
  2. Haapala EA, Eloranta AM, Venäläinen T, et al. Diet quality and academic achievement: a prospective study among primary school children. Eur J Nutr 2017;56(7):2299-2308. [Abstract]
  3. Kvestad I, Hysing M, Shrestha M, et al. Vitamin B-12 status in infancy is positively associated with development and cognitive functioning 5 y later in Nepalese children. Am J Clin Nutr 2017;105(5):1122-1131. [Abstract]
  4. Viktorinova A, Ursinyova M, Trebaticka J, et al. Changed Plasma Levels of zinc and copper to zinc ratio and their possible associations with parent- and teacher-rated symptoms in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Biol Trace Elem Res 2016;169(1):1-7. [Abstract]
  5. Australian Bureau of Stastics (ABS). Key findings. Australian Health Survey: Consumption of Food Groups from the Australian Dietary Guidelines, 2011-12. ABS 2016. [Source]
  6. Morandi G, Maines E, Piona C, et al. Significant association among growing pains, vitamin D supplementation, and bone mineral status: results from a pilot cohort study. J Bone Miner Metab 2015;33(2):201-206. [Abstract]


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Belinda Reynolds
Belinda is a dietitian and Senior Educator at one of Australia's leading nutraceutical companies. She graduated with an Honours Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics, and has been involved in the complementary medicine industry for over 15 years. Her key interests are immune modulation, the human microbiome and the impact they have on overall health.