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Poor diet associated with increased childhood bullying, say SLU researchers

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

Children who eat poor diets are more likely to be bullies at school, according to research from Saint Louis University.

The study, which used data from a World Health Organization survey of 150,000 children across 40 countries in Europe and North America, examined the relationship between diet and bullying behavior. Students who had poor diets or experienced frequent meal deprivation were more likely to bully their peers.

Despite increased interest in bullying research, few studies have considered how nutrition might drive this behavior, said Michael Vaughn, a professor of social work at Saint Louis University and one of the study co-authors.

“We know that the human brain consumes about one-fifth of all the body’s calories,” Vaughn said. “It could be that inadequate or irregular nutrition may diminish the ability of the human brain to maintain impulse control, resulting in increased probability of aggression and bullying.”

Several diet factors were associated with a higher likelihood of being a bully, including high junk-food consumption and low consumption of healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

Kids who reported frequent meal deprivation, including skipping breakfast and nighttime hunger, were also more likely to be bullies and victims of bullying.

Taken as a whole, these results could have important implications for children with limited access to healthy food, said Vaughn.

“Food insecurity is a major problem in the United States. Although we’re a wealthy country, a lot of foods that are available for youth are of a poor quality,” he said. “Kids in impoverished households may take in some calories, but it’s often of a poor quality, because it’s cheap to have high fat, high-sodium meals.”

Although the association between diet factors and bullying was strong, the authors are quick to point out that poor eating habits don’t necessarily cause bullying behavior.

In fact, bullying has been linked to a broad range of other risk factors, including parent-child relationships and neighborhood safety.

“Poor diet is just one of a multitude of probable factors,” Vaughn said. “This is one of many studies that show that intersections between nutrition and diet are meaningful, and that we should pay greater attention.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award. 

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