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Research links childhood hunger to impulsivity and interpersonal violence

By Alex R. Piquero

It would not be a stretch of the imagination to presume that if you are reading this column, you will have not experienced hunger today.

Yet, the same cannot be said for many young children across the United States and worldwide. Almost 50 million Americans, including 15 million children, live in food insecure households, meaning that they are uncertain whether they will eat enough nutritious food each day.

Food insecurity can lead to poor physical and oral health, and compromised cognitive, academic and psychosocial development early in life. The consequences can reverberate throughout a hungry child’s life. To the list of adverse outcomes of childhood hunger, we can now add impulse control and interpersonal violence.

In a recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, my colleagues and I analyzed data from the large-scale National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions to examine the relationships between childhood hunger, impulsivity and interpersonal violence. Participants responded to questions including how often they went hungry as a child, whether they had problems controlling their temper and if they had physically injured another person on purpose.

Participants who reported frequent hunger as kids were more than twice as likely to exhibit impulsivity and injure others intentionally as adolescents and adults. In fact, 37 percent of the study’s participants who had frequent hunger as children reported that they had been involved in interpersonal violence. The link between childhood hunger and violence held even after a variety of variables were considered.

When children do not have basic nutrients, they are at risk of compromised brain development. This influences the extent to which kids can learn in classrooms, learn to control impulses and attain the psychosocial skills they need to function throughout their lives.

So, what can be done?

First and foremost, we need to continue providing children with adequate nutrition and meals throughout the school year and the summer.

Second, we need to eliminate food deserts, which are impoverished areas where residents do not have ready access to adequately and nutritiously stocked grocery stores.

Third, the link between childhood hunger and violence should prompt us to place a very high priority on finding ways to provide aid, services, outreach and programs to needy families.

Finally, for those of us who have had the privilege of not experiencing hunger, donating money and food to food banks, pantries and other charitable organizations is a good thing. The cost is minimal but the gains can be maximal.

Alex R. Piquero is Ashbel Smith professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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