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Behavior of Malnourished or Hungry Children

By Christina Schnell ; Updated September 26, 2017
Malnourished children exist in even the wealthiest nations in the world.

Malnutrition and hunger are serious problems for children throughout the world. Malnourishment results from chronic and severe lack of nourishing food, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. However, the two conditions aren't necessarily the same, nor do they cause the same behaviors. In other words, a children can be underfed or hungry, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're severely malnourished. The behavior of severely malnourished children often differs from than a children who are mildly malnourished.

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Cognitive Behaviors

The human brain requires nutrients, calories and fat to properly function. Children suffering from all levels of malnutrition are also plagued by poor attention and memory, explains the textbook, "Nutrition and Behavior: A Multidisciplinary Approach." A malnourished child may frequently shift between activities or have trouble concentrating, whether it's in school or building a block tower. Such children have difficulty remembering basic information or tasks. At the extreme level, severely malnourished children often have such extreme inattention and memory deficits that they appear in a comatose state.

Energy Behaviors

While severely malnourished children often appear lethargic and passive, mildly malnourished children often exhibit signs of hyperactivity and impulsive behavior. A 2004 study published in the "American Journal of Psychiatry" found that malnourished children were more likely to be described as hyperactive and erratic throughout childhood. Unfortunately, hyperactivity and poor impulse control can mask the larger issue of poor nutrition.

Social Behavior

While severely malnourished children may exhibit asocial behaviors, such as a disinterest in playing with other children, mild or moderately malnourished children can exhibit aggressive, antisocial behavior, found the 2004 study in "American Journal of Psychiatry." Additionally, the study explains, early malnutrition stunts that portion of the brain responsible for controlling emotions and aggressive behaviors. Even when these children are no longer clinically malnourished, notes "Nutrition and Behavior," they are still more likely to have poor relationships with their peers.

Food-Related Behaviors

While severely malnourished children who are very young may be uninterested in eating, mildly and moderately malnourished children may exhibit food hoarding symptoms. Malnourished children have learned that food won't always be available, so it's important to grab as much as they can when it is available. In a similar vein, malnourished children may be prone to binge eating when food is available, often making themselves sick afterward because their bodies aren't accustomed to processing normal quantities of food -- let alone large quantities of food.

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About the Author

Christina Bednarz Schnell began writing full-time in 2010. Her areas of expertise include child development and behavior, medical conditions and pet health. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international relations.

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