The Long-Term Effects of Hunger

How Food Insecurity Impacts a Child’s Future 

By Amanda DeWitt

The Long Term Effects

Around the globe hunger and malnutrition claim lives and cripple communities. Children, women, and all people living in poverty are especially vulnerable.

As many as half of children under five worldwide lack access to the nutrition they need to properly grow and thrive. Roughly 45 percent of deaths in children under five are related to improper nutrition.

The effects of hunger and malnutrition can last a lifetime. But some studies also suggest that with age-appropriate intervention, many of the negative effects can be drastically reduced.

Physical Development

Improper nutrition can affect children from birth.

  • Globally more than 149 million children under five are stunted — meaning they lacked the proper nutrition to achieve their full height potential.

  • More than 45 million children experience wasting. Without enough protein and calories, they are unable to put on adequate weight.

  • They often lack proper muscle mass and healthy fat.

  • They may experience other visible effects such as hair loss and discoloration or skin depigmentation.

Beneath the surface malnutrition also inhibits the immune system. It decreases one’s capacity to fight against common diseases, and many people experience recurring infections. The body’s strain to stay healthy may further deplete a child’s essential nutrients and further inhibit their growth.

The physical effects of malnutrition strongly correlate to other cognitive effects — preventing children from reaching their full potential.

Cognitive Development

When a child experiences stunting or wasting, it often impairs their cognitive development as well. Protein is essential for proper brain development, especially early in life. When a child lacks access to adequate protein and other essential nutrients, it may lead to poor cognitive performance and other behavioral issues.

Children who are malnourished early in life can go on to suffer from decreased IQ. They may also experience poor academic performance, struggle with attention deficit disorders, and lack executive control.

As a result of struggles to focus and learn in the classroom, adolescent children may also have lower national test scores. These challenges can follow them well into adulthood as they continue to suffer the effects of attention disorders and a lower IQ — ultimately limiting their opportunities to secure adequate employment and income to provide for themselves and their families.

As large numbers of people in an area are affected by malnutrition, the success of entire communities is hindered by the long-term effects of hunger.

Emotional Development

Suffering during childhood can have long-term emotional and psychological effects. Children who struggle with hunger and malnutrition often live in poverty, which creates additional challenges that can impair their development and future success.

Many children growing up in extreme poverty lack access to healthy developmental environments. Often they do not have the opportunity to engage in healthy childhood play or to adequately interact with their peers. Their parents may work multiple jobs to help provide for the family — limiting the amount of care and interaction young children receive. As a result, they may experience challenges with gross motor and language development.

Children who continue to suffer from daily hunger often struggle in school. The physical effects they experience interrupt their focus, and may even cause fainting and other symptoms, that further impair learning in the classroom and affect their overall self-esteem.

Severe hunger and malnutrition are also known to cause a variety of psychological issues ranging from anxiety and depression to more severe mental illnesses. These issues can affect children and also carry into adulthood.

Oscar’s Story

The effects of hunger can last a lifetime — but so can the gift of a meal provided at just the right time.

In places like Zimbabwe nearly half of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Many families struggle to access the nutrition they need just to survive.

Oscar*, a vivacious eight-year-old boy, lives with his single mother and many aunts. His mother works as a vegetable vendor, selling produce at local markets. Due to recent COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions, Oscar’s mother was unable to operate her business effectively. Without adequate income she struggled to provide for her son’s basic needs. Oscar constantly felt hungry.

Thankfully faithful Unto® supporters stepped in, and Oscar was able to attend the feeding program hosted by our in-country partners. When he first started coming to the program, Oscar said his only ambition was to eat as much as he could. He was so hungry he would often ask for thirds.

But after a month in the program, Oscar began thinking about bigger things. With his nutritional needs met, he now dreams of becoming an engineer when he grows up. He wants to work hard so he can one day help provide for his mother. Oscar is also learning about God’s love and care for him and his family.

Studies show that nutritional intervention can help reverse the physiological effects of malnutrition. But it also does something more. When you express the kindness of Jesus to a child like Oscar, you can help change their future.

The gift of a meal meets the immediate physical needs of children and their families. It also gives them the opportunities to hear about eternal hope that can change their life now and for all eternity.

*Name changed for security purposes.

You Can Provide Meals for Hungry Children

Famine is knocking at the door of 41 million people worldwide. Children and their families lack access to the basic nutrition they need to survive. Right now every 13 cents you give provides a meal for a person in one of the toughest places on earth.

Your donation will put nutritious meals into the hands of those who need them most — and will provide opportunities for local Unto staff teams to share about the hope of Jesus.

Published February 25, 2022


Amanda is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Gift for Leadership, Kindred Spirit, and Christianity Today publications. She holds a M.A. in Media and Communication from Dallas Theological Seminary.