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May 05, 2016

In Mauritius, Penn researchers find good nutrition promotes positive social development in kids

Study on African island of Mauritius shows neurocognitive link between nutrition and social behavior

An apple a day doesn't just keep the doctor away — it could also be a vital factor in the positive social development of children, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

While most research studies tend to focus on the negative effects of poor diet, two investigators at Penn decided to examine the benefits of healthy nutrition by looking at physical health and social development indicators among children on the island of Mauritius, situated off the eastern coast of Africa.

“What people are not doing is looking at positive effects of good nutrition, in particular on social behavior,” said Adrian Raine, a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor of criminology, psychology and psychiatry. “We link nutrition to physical health but also social health and positive social behavior.”

Raine was joined in the study by Jianghong Liu, an associate professor in Penn’s School of Nursing and Perelman School of Medicine.

“No one has looked at positive social behavior,” Liu said. “Childhood social behavior, even adult social behavior, has a lot of implications for physical and mental health and well being.”

On an island with a population of about 1.3 million, Raine and Liu looked at a sample of 1,795 three-year-old children to analyze the presence of anemia (caused by iron deficiency and low hemoglobin levels), angular stomatitis (indicated by cracked lips and low levels of vitamin B2 and niacin), and insufficient protein intake (measured by hair health).

Children who displayed even one of these physical indicators were deemed "suffering from nutritional defects."

What researchers found is that the greater the number of malnutrition indicators, the more likely children were to show impaired social behavior based on factors including friendliness, extent of verbalization, active social play, and exploratory behavior. Raine and Liu used this information to identify a neurocognitive connection between nutrition and social behavior.

“The bigger message is give children good nutrition early on,” Liu said. “Not only will it enhance cognitive function but, importantly, promote good social behavior.”

The researchers said an encouraging aspect of their findings is that the effects of poor nutrition can be reversed, adding that it's never too late or too early to get kids on a well-balanced diet.

As a next step, Raine and Liu hope to expand the study to large American cities and conduct a more longitudinal rather than cross-sectional analysis of populations all at once.

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