March is National Nutrition Month — how does nutrition affect development?

Springtime is often associated with rebirth and renewal — the blooming plants and bright colors reminding us that as winter comes to a close, new life cycles begin. Thus, it seems appropriate that March is National Nutrition Month, a campaign from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to build awareness around issues of nutrition and health. The campaign’s goal is to educate and empower the American public to choose fresh, balanced options whenever possible. Thanks to former first-lady Michelle Obama’s childhood health campaign and the recent popularization of living a ‘healthy lifestyle’ – particularly through social media (1, 2) – issues of health and nutrition are more regularly talked about in recent years. Despite these changes, over 90% of the American public don’t manage to eat the recommended amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, and obesity-related illnesses – like heart disease and diabetes – continue to be one of the larger causes of death across the country.

Poor nutrition is a huge issue for people across the globe, one that stems from a number of related, often systemic, issues, such as limited access to produce and fresh foods, undereducation about health and nutrition, and more broadly, poverty. Even though we often associate ‘malnutrition’ with populations in developing countries, a large number of children and adults across America suffer from food shortages every day. Researchers have shown that, along with a variety of other physical consequences, consistent deficiencies in nutrition have a significant impact on brain development and activity (3). There are two potential outcomes of poor nutrition – malnourishment and over-nourishment to the point of obesity – both of which have the potential to interfere with your brain’s well-being.

Malnutrition from not having enough food and/or enough nutritious food can have devastating impacts on neurological development. Research shows that deficiencies in micro and macronutrients during early childhood years (particularly protein-deficiencies) can lead to missed neurodevelopmental landmarks, which contribute to difficulty in learning, late school entry, and failure to perform at the same level as peers (4, 5). Other studies suggest that brains under starvation conditions will actively suppress certain functions to conserve energy. This process is called “down-regulation.” Our brains down-regulate certain functions as an energy-saving precaution so that necessary brain activities can continue for as long as possible, even when the body isn’t getting enough food. Studies of animal models suggest that memory is the primary function a brain will down-regulate during a period of starvation, in particular the formation of long-term memories (6). So, not only is malnutrition a risk-factor for developmental setbacks, but can also negatively impact our daily life and brain function!

On the other side of the issue, when overnutrition leads to obesity, there is also the potential for negative impacts on our brains. However, obesity-related risks tend to be more social and psychological, rather than physical. Researchers have shown that obesity in children and teens is associated with psychosocial stressors like stress, bullying, feelings of loneliness, isolation, or shame (7), and obese teens are more likely to engage in certain risky behaviors, like smoking cigarettes (8). Obesity is also associated with the development of mental health problems, like depression, in people of all ages (9). These findings are complicated, because psychosocial difficulties can also be influenced by a number of other factors, like genetic predisposition, living in poverty, living in unsafe neighborhoods, unstable home lives, high levels of stress, etc. (10). Further complicating the issue, some of those factors that influence the development of psychosocial difficulties can also be directly associated with obesity. The risks are all tangled together, making them hard to separate into individual causes and effects.

These are just a few of the potential risks that come from poor nutrition. Unfortunately, the reality is that many Americans just don’t have access to fresh food sources, either because of their location or socioeconomic status. Finding affordable produce can be challenging and expensive, and preparing that produce into home-cooked meals takes up a lot of time. Luckily, it’s not always as complicated as it may seem. Though we are bombarded daily with different opinions and facts about what foods may be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for us, the reality that nutritionists hope to translate is that a healthy diet is a balanced diet. It doesn’t need to be fancy and it doesn’t have to be boring or bland. Every person’s daily intake of food should come from a mix of food groups including vegetables, fruits, grains, and protein sources, like chicken, fish or beans. There are so many combinations, the options are endless! The real key is to make sure you aren’t eating too much of certain kinds of foods – specifically meat, dairy products, and grains. And try to stay away from foods high in processed sugar and/or saturated fats. To find out more about choosing healthy options and reading food labels, check out this article.

Of course, regular exercise helps to keep your heart, mind, and body in good shape, as well! This can also be difficult to fit into a busy schedule, but even just taking a 15 minute walk every day, getting up to stretch and walk around every hour, or so, or parking at the far end of the supermarket parking lot to increase your daily steps can make a huge difference over time (11).

The National Nutrition Month website has lots of helpful information sheets with about how to build easy nutritious meals and snacks for yourself and your family. In addition, there are a ton of helpful tools available online to help guide your way to a healthier lifestyle! If you are looking for more tips and tricks, check out the government’s healthy-eating guidelines, the Department of Health & Human Services nutrition resources, and the Choose My Plate toolkit.
If you’re interested in learning more about demographics and food accessibility in your town, check out the Healthy Food Access Portal. You can also check out the Farm Aid page for resources to help navigate food labels and locate fresh produce near you!

The Family Life Project joins NIH-funded ECHO initiative

In 2015, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) pioneered a collaborative study hoping to pave the way to creating healthier environments for growing kids. This initiative, called the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO), aims to understand the effects of environmental factors — chemical and psychological — on children’s health and development. NIH researchers are particularly interested in assessing specific aspects of pediatric health, including upper and lower airways, obesity, pre-, peri-, and postnatal outcomes, and neurodevelopment, as well as the overall development of positive health outcomes. The collaboration brings together over 70 existing cohorts already enrolled in longitudinal studies across the country. In doing so, NIH hopes to build a standardized core of data — a data set large enough to tackle big questions about the early childhood environmental factors that determine major health outcomes.

Involvement in a collaborative study, like ECHO, allows for the associated research teams to maintain funding for their existing research projects while also contributing to the larger-scale data collection efforts of the overall project. For ECHO, collaboration allows NIH researchers to capitalize on existing longitudinal pediatric studies, grouping cohort data and standardizing data collection nationwide. This effort will bring together information from over 50,000 children and families from different backgrounds.  

The Family Life Project (FLP), a longitudinal study initiated in 2003 and lead by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Pennsylvania State University, and NYU’s Neuroscience and Education Lab, joined the ECHO initiative in 2015. Doing so granted them funding to continue the project until at least 2023. FLP’s investigators hope their research will help to clarify how environmental factors influence child development in rural communities. In order to determine this, the researchers have been diligently following a cohort of families living in and around small towns in predominantly rural counties in North Carolina and Pennsylvania for the past 15 years. The FLP team meets with participating families regularly to develop an understanding of the environments in which they live, the challenges they face, and how their children are faring emotionally, physically, and academically.

Though FLP has now joined ECHO, the project’s research intentions remain the same. FLP investigators are primarily interested in the effects of early-life stress on the development of self-regulation in childhood. However, their data sets are large and far-reaching, and allow them to address questions about language development, school achievement, and various other aspects of physical and mental health throughout childhood and adolescence. Receiving ECHO funding will allow FLP to follow its cohort through adolescence and into early adulthood. As the participants grow older, FLP researchers will begin to explore the teens’ social lives, risk behaviors, and psychopathology.

The first two years of ECHO funding (2016-2018) gave the FLP team and their collaborators time to prepare for implementation of the ECHO-wide data collection protocol and to pool retrospective cohort data for ECHO’s analyses. 2019 will mark the first round of prospective data collection for ECHO cohorts, and the 16th data collection time point for FLP families. FLP’s involvement in ECHO means that these visits will look a bit different for FLP families than they have in previous years. This year, the families will be asked to attend a clinic visit, in lieu of having researchers visit them in their homes, where data collectors will be able to gather a larger variety of biospecimens including blood, urine, saliva, hair, stool and toenail clippings. Similar to previous data collection visits, the researchers will also conduct interviews and other tests of mental, physical, and social-emotional health. This data will continue to inform FLP investigators’ ongoing questions about child health and development, as well as contribute to ECHO’s nationwide data set.

Investigations such as ECHO and FLP undertake their research in a bid to improve child health for every family in the country, regardless of location and income-level. By developing a thorough understanding of how environmental and psycho-social factors can alter child development (both positively and negatively), longitudinal research provides the necessary information to instigate change. The findings of long-term studies of development, such as these, go on to promote new policies, regulations, and interventions that will best help children and young adults find happiness, health, and success.

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