The prospect of malnutrition in poverty-stricken areas may seem unbelievable to many Americans, but as of 2014, more than 15 million children in the United States were categorized as food insecure. Nearly 40 percent of American households live below the poverty line. And most low-income families have continually reported that healthy eating was simply too expensive. (Figures sourced from APA.org’s, “What Are The Psychological Effects Of Hunger On Children”).

Malnutrition, both pre- and post-natal, negatively affects babies and children in several ways, some of which are nearly impossible to reverse even after the children begin eating a nutritional diet. Toxic stress, or prolonged, unrelieved stress for extended periods of time, stemming from ceaseless malnutrition, is a learned behavior that stunts both physical and intellectual growth through an unceasing drive to survive.

Veteran counselors, as well as future counselors just now enrolling in a counseling degree program, should equip themselves with the knowledge and tools necessary for dealing with malnourished children and, by extension, poverty-stricken families.

Early Development Malnutrition And Toxic Stress

Toxic stress is more intense and longer lasting that normal, everyday stress. An example of everyday stress could be having a flat tire on the way to work, while toxic stress comes from an endless stream of relentless stress. Those who constantly agonize over paying the rent and filling the refrigerator, month after month, year after year, are experiencing toxic stress. Children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from or whether they will have a roof over their heads day after day are experiencing toxic stress.

“Toxic stress,” according to human development authority Ann Mastergeorge, “is defined as ‘unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system due to strong, frequent and/or prolonged adversity such as physical/emotional abuse, neglect, extreme poverty, exposure to violence and other traumatic events without adequate adult support.’” Her comments appear in her article, “Researchers Examine Effects Of Toxic Stress On Children’s Brain Development,” on ScienceDaily.com.

Mastergeorge notes that the psychological effects of toxic stress in children are the same for impoverished, starving kids as they are for children exposed to gang violence and the constant, looming threat of death.

Latent effects of malnutrition continue to affect children into adulthood, even when the episode of malnutrition is followed by periods of food plenty. Maternal malnutrition while the child is still in utero can have long-lasting consequences. As soon as the child is born, he or she already has an unhealthy fixation on food and is driven by malnutrition to place an unhealthy degree of importance on the acquisition of food.

“In adulthood, these children [whose mothers were malnourished during pregnancy] were at significantly greater risk for a range of health and mental health problems, including obesity, heart disease, and schizophrenic disorders, compared with children whose gestation was not affected by famine,” writes child development expert Ross A. Thompson in his paper, “Stress And Child Development,” on the Institute of Education Sciences site.

“Investigators have concluded that these adult health problems may have resulted from fetal ‘programming’ for nutritional deprivation followed by a lifetime of plentiful food for which these individuals were biologically unprepared,” Thompson concludes.

Thompson’s paper also describes the concept of plasticity in biology. The biological systems still in development in infants and children are extremely pliable, a quality known as plasticity. The plastic nature of early human development is the primary reason why traumatic events and desperate situations have such a formative impact on a baby or young child. Because of plasticity, interventions by counselors will become increasingly difficult to accomplish as the child approaches adolescence and adulthood.

The importance of proper nutrition during gestation and in a child’s formative years cannot be understated. Counselors can help both by coaching parents in proper childhood nutrition and by teaching affected children useful coping mechanisms.

Nutrition’s Role In The Formation Of The Brain

The human brain is an incredibly intricate and complex organ that the scientific community has only begun to understand. One thing, however, is certain when it comes to brain development: proper nutrition. A nutritious diet promotes healthy biological processes on which the human brain depends for proper function.

“The brain is a specialized tissue in which functionality depends upon the generation of electrical potentials and their conduction through long axonal components of cell bodies and through the synaptic gaps between these cell bodies,” nutrition specialist Francisco J. Rosales, et al., write in “Understanding The Role Of Nutrition In The Brain & Behavioral Development Of Toddlers And Preschool Children: Identifying And Overcoming Methodological Barriers” on the National Institutes of Health website.

Rosales explains that cell bodies and synaptic connections need nutrients such as folic acid, iron, zinc, and special fatty acids to work properly in the brain and for the brain tissue itself to remain healthy. Indispensable processes such as gene expression and other bodily functions controlled by the brain, such as the central nervous system, also depend on adequate nutritional support.

To remain healthy and develop properly, children should have a high caloric intake daily, ranging from 1,000 to 1,600 calories, depending on their activity level. They should also consume regular amounts of protein, a healthy portion of fat, and vitamins and minerals including iron, zinc, iodine, and vitamin A. (“Nutrition & Brain Development In Infants, Toddlers & Preschoolers” on SFGate.com.)

Counselors work with federally funded, community-based Early Head Start programs designed to assist low-income families, pregnant women, and preschool aged kids. “These programs provide educational, nutritional, health, and social services,” reports the American Academy of Pediatrics in “Poverty And Child Health In The United States” on the AAP News and Journals Gateway site, “In addition to child care and preschool services, Early Head Start and Head Start offer prenatal education, job training and adult education, and assistance in accessing housing and insurance.”

An Online Master Of Arts In Counseling (MAC) Degree From Regis College

Regis College offers its online MAC degree program to students who are interested in becoming counselors addressing problems related to early childhood development, substance abuse, marriage and family problems, and other clinical mental health concerns.The online learning environment enables students to pursue their master’s degree on their own schedule while enjoying the academic excellence, supportive environment, and dedication to social justice for which Regis College is recognized. Visit Regis for more information about the online counseling program.

Sources:


What Are The Psychological Effects Of Hunger On Children
https://www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/socioeconomic/hunger.pdf

Researchers Examine Effects Of Toxic Stress On Children’s Brain Development
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161201161705.htm

Stress And Child Development
http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1029029.pdf

Understanding The Role Of Nutrition In The Brain & Behavioral Development Of Toddlers And Preschool Children:
Identifying And Overcoming Methodological

Barriers
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2776771/

Nutrition & Brain Development In Infants, Toddlers & Preschoolers
http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/nutrition-brain-development-infants-toddlers-preschoolers-4625.html

Poverty And Child Health In The United States
http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/early/2016/03/07/peds.2016-0339.full.pdf