Eating a healthy diet as a child may have an impact on your social development and make you more friendly and socially active, according to a new study out of the University of Pennsylvania. Past research has found a link between malnutrition and lower cognitive ability in childhood years, but the latest researchers wanted to see whether poor nutrition would have a similar impact on social development.
“What people are not doing is looking at positive effects of good nutrition, in particular on social behavior,” said Adrian Raine, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an author of the study, in a press release. “We link nutrition to physical health but also social health and positive social behavior.”
Social development in children is tied into plenty of other aspects of mental health – like emotional and cognitive development, and general wellbeing. Eating a healthy diet, meanwhile, has been associated with not only improved physical health, but also mental health and cognitive function. A 2013 study found that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables was associated with being more optimistic, and some psychiatrists believe that diet is just as important to mental health as it is to heart health.
“Childhood social behavior, even adult social behavior, has a lot of implications for physical and mental health and wellbeing,” said Jianghong Liu, associate professor in Penn’s School of Nursing and Perelman School of Medicine, in the press release.
The researchers reviewed 1,795 children from Mauritius, a small island off the eastern coast of Africa. The children were all 3 years old. They focused on four features of physical health as well as four aspects of social development that were related to nutrition; the physical health factors included anemia (iron deficiency), shown by low hemoglobin levels, angular stomatitis (cracked lips and a lack of vitamin B2 and niacin), as well as lack of protein, shown by thin, discolored hair. If a child had any of these conditions, they were considered to have some level of “nutritional deficits.”
Social factors, meanwhile, involved friendliness, verbalization, active social play, and exploratory behavior. The researchers found that children who suffered from more of the nutritional deficit conditions also had lower levels of social behavior and development, and they believe that somewhere in there is a neurocognitive link between nutrition and social behavior.
Though the study hints at a link between nutrition and being social, in order to improve the results, the researchers would need to complete another trial in which they manipulate nutrition to see whether that directly causes improvements (or detriments) in social behavior and cognitive function. It’s also possible that children who are by nature less socially active tend to eat food that’s poorer in nutrition as a correlation – a 2015 study found that single people living alone tended to eat fewer fruits and vegetables, for example.
“The bigger message is give children good nutrition early on,” Liu. “Not only will it enhance cognitive function but, importantly, promote good social behavior.”