No one doubts the importance of a well-balanced nutritious diet during childhood in order to guarantee a healthy body during adulthood.  Thank your mom this Mother’s Day for getting you off to such a good start.  Sadly, not every child enjoys the benefits of good nutrition during infancy.  Does it matter to your brain?  If so, what if you’ve made sure that you had a great diet during your teen years and stayed good physical health with lots of exercise?  Was that enough to overcome a poor early diet?

A recent study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry by psychologists from the Harvard Medical School and Duke University Medical Center in Durham tried to answer this question with regard to the effects of malnutrition during the first year life upon personality traits at age 40.

The results are rather discouraging given that you had no control over how well fed you were while lying helpless in a crib.  The men and women who participated in this study were malnourished as infants, but quite well fed throughout the rest of their lives; now adults, they were predisposed to anxiety, they were more vulnerable to stress, experienced greater hostility and mistrust of others and reported problems with anger and depression.  These men and women also reported comparatively little intellectual curiosity, social warmth, cooperativeness and willingness to try new experiences.  They also found it more difficult to work hard at achieving their personal goals.

These results are not surprising. Previous investigations have already reported that people exposed to malnutrition in the womb have increased rates of personality disorders and schizophrenia.

This recent study, combined with many others, confirm that malnutrition soon after birth alters brain growth in ways that negatively shape personality traits later in life.  The lack of specific critical nutrients indirectly influences adult personality by increasing the child’s distress level and suspicion towards others.  Making this situation even worse is the possibility that these personality traits will make the children more vulnerable to continued poor parenting.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford Univ Press)

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