Can Children Catch up from the Consequences of Undernourishment? Evidence from Child Linear Growth, Developmental Epigenetics, and Brain and Neurocognitive Development

Adv Nutr. 2020 Jul 1;11(4):1032-1041. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmaa020.


Recovery from nutritionally induced height deficits continues to garner attention. The current literature on catch-up growth, however, has 2 important limitations: wide-ranging definitions of catch-up growth are used, and it remains unclear whether children can recover from the broader consequences of undernutrition. We addressed these shortcomings by reviewing the literature on the criteria for catch-up in linear growth and on the potential to recover from undernutrition early in life in 3 domains: linear growth, developmental epigenetics, and child brain and neurocognitive development. Four criteria must be met to demonstrate catch-up growth in height: after a period in which a growth-inhibiting condition (criterion 1) causes a reduction in linear growth velocity (criterion 2), alleviation of the inhibiting condition (criterion 3) leads to higher-than-normal velocity (criterion 4). Accordingly, studies that are observational, do not use absolute height, or have no alleviation of an inhibiting condition cannot be used to establish catch-up growth. Adoption and foster care, which provide dramatic improvements in children's living conditions not typically attained in nutrition interventions, led to some (but incomplete) recovery in linear growth and brain and neurocognitive development. Maternal nutrition around the time of conception was shown to have long-term (potentially permanent) effects on DNA methylation in the offspring. Undernourishment early in life may thus have profound irreversible effects. Scientific, program, and policy efforts should focus on preventing maternal and child undernutrition rather than on correcting its consequences or attempting to prove they can be corrected.

Keywords: DNA methylation; adoption; brain and neurocognitive development; catch-up; developmental epigenetics; linear growth; recovery; undernourishment; undernutrition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Body Height
  • Brain
  • Child
  • Child Development
  • Child Nutrition Disorders*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Malnutrition*