Will a Hungry Child Become a Violent Adult?

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Photo by Jennifer Donely via Flickr

Photo by Jennifer Donely via Flickr

Individuals who experience frequent bouts of hunger as children are more than twice as likely to exhibit violent behavior, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Researchers used data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions to establish a relationship between childhood hunger and lack of impulse control, which manifested itself later in life in episodes of anger and violence. They acknowledged that their findings had important limitations, among them the fact that their survey data relied on subjective information such as adults’ ability to recall their exposure to hunger as children.

Nevertheless, they argued that their research should be seen as part of efforts to address violence as a public health challenge.

“At the very least, we need to get children the nutritional food they need,” said the report’s lead author, Alex Piquero, Ph.D., Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas. ”It’s not a difficult problem to address, and we can envision lots of gains.”

The study found that 37 percent of survey participants who reported frequent hunger as children also reported they had been involved in interpersonal violence. In contrast, 15 percent of those who reported little or no childhood hunger admitted they had been involved in violent behavior.

“A similar pattern was observed not only for interpersonal violence in general, but for specific manifestations of violence such as fight-starting, injuring someone in a violent altercation, the use of a weapon in a fight, and the purposeful injury of another person,” the researchers wrote.

The study also found that the association between hunger and violence was stronger among white males who participated in the study than African Americans or Hispanics. They admitted this seemed counterintuitive: significant percentages of minority populations earn less income than the majority and in theory experience greater food-access problems.

Possible explanations suggested by the researchers include the hypothesis that African Americans are “more likely to report having access to calories and therefore not go hungry…even if [their diet] lacks nutrient density;” and “under harsher social conditions one would expect actions based on satisfying immediate survival needs,” thus limiting immediate loss of impulse control.

Nevertheless, the authors said their findings showed that persons “who do not have the necessary quantity and quality of food face adverse effects that may reverberate adversely over the life course”—particularly for those living in what the authors described as “food deserts”: disadvantaged communities in large urban cities.

The study, first published in the March issue of the International Journal and made available online this week, was co-authored by Dr. Michael G. Vaughn, Sandra Naeger and Dr. Jin Huang of Saint Louis University; and Dr. Christopher P. Salas-Wright of the University of Texas at Austin.

To download a copy of the study, please click HERE.

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