How Malnutrition Affects Cognitive Development in Children Under Two

Garden for Health International (GHI) targets Rwanda’s most vulnerable families for comprehensive nutrition intervention within the first 1000 days of a child’s life. Acutely and chronically malnourished children under two are the primary demographic GHI identifies when enrolling new families into our agriculture and health trainings. This is largely due to strong evidence linking early childhood malnutrition with impaired cognitive development. Nutritional intervention in earlier stages of malnutrition increases the chance of a child catching up to their peer group in terms of cognitive development, and not succumbing to related mental and physical problems statistically more likely to emerge in malnourished children later in life.

According to the 2016 Global Nutrition Report, an estimated 37% of Rwandese children are diagnosed as chronically malnourished. This is concerning especially when examining the vital role that nutrients play in early brain development. By age two, a child’s brain has already reached 80% of its adult mass. Similarly, it has also achieved significant brain synapse development (synapses provide the infrastructure for neurons to communicate with one another). They facilitate the transfer of vital information to different areas of the brain. To reach full brain growth potential, it is critical that sufficient nutrients be incorporated into the diets of young children, because of their function in cell growth, DNA synthesis, the metabolism of hormones and neurotransmitters, and other significant enzyme activity in the brain.

A child participates in GHI’s Early Childhood Development program at a health center training in Shingiro, Musanze. Photo / Maggie Andresen for Gardens for Health International


In a study comparing Indian children of average nutrition intake and their malnourished peers, it was found that the school-aged malnourished group presented lower IQs, less cognitive functioning, lower school performance, and a higher propensity for disciplinary action. These results are consistent with other reports of low school attendance and performance in malnourished children living in South Africa, Jamaica, the Philippines, and Brazil.


Stunting, or the impaired growth and development of a child due to poor nutrition within the first two years of life, is further linked to shorter adult height and reduced adult income especially in jobs requiring manual labor. The ramifications of childhood malnutrition are potentially severe to national economies, as underdeveloped children grow into adults who cannot reach their full potential either in school or the workforce. Elevated healthcare costs, low productivity in the workplace, and a small pool of skilled labor are some of the national projected outcomes in aging populations challenged by childhood malnutrition. While the majority of stunted children in the world live in Asia, Africa is the only region where stunting is on the rise. In Rwanda, 38% of children under 5 are stunted, totalling to about 900,000 children nationwide.

Gardens for Health International looks to intervene before the potentially devastating effects of malnutrition begin maturing in children past the threshold for recovering cognitive development. Although the African region has the highest global rates of food insecurity, GHI believes that by providing comprehensive health training programs, targeted agricultural support, and seeds/inputs, we can empower families to overcome malnutrition in their homes and communities, setting children on a path to better health and future success.

A mother comforts her child at a GHI health center training in Shingiro, Musanze. Photo / Maggie Andresen for Gardens for Health International


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