Poor children given a nutritional boost during the first two years of life earned adult wages nearly 50 percent higher than peers deprived of a food supplement, a study has shown Friday.
Previous research has pointed to a link between improved nutrition in early childhood and higher productivity later in life, looking at indicators such as body height and performance in school.
But this is the first direct evidence that eating well as an infant and toddler translates into greater earning potential as an adult, according to the study, published in the British medical journal The Lancet.
About 200 million children in less developed nations pay a terrible price for not getting the right foods when aged one and two, the period when nutrition is most critical for future health.
Iron and iodine deficiencies, for example, can lead to stunted growth, poor cognitive development and energy-sapping anaemia. Such handicaps prevents children from realising their full potential.
The study, led by John Hoddinott of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington D.C., analysed data on 1,424 Guatemalans aged 25 to 42 who grew up in four villages in the same region.
The children in two of the villages, enrolled during the 1970s in a nutritional supplement programme, were given a daily serving of a nutritious central American hot beverage called atole, made from corn meal, water, brown sugar, vanilla and either chocolate or fruit.
The children from the other two villages, living in virtually identical conditions, were given a less nutritious food supplement.
When Hoddinott and his team compared the two groups two and three decades later, they were startled by what they found.
The adults who had eaten the atole as tiny tots pulled in hourly wages 46 percent higher than those who had been given the low-calorie alternative.
Many of the men had jobs requiring strength and stamina, the study noted.
But surprisingly there was no similar divide in school performance or cognitive test scores, and it only applied to men.
Indeed, for the atole-nourished women the results were reversed compared to their male counterparts: the females showed improved reading skills, but very little economic gain.
The difference was explained by fewer economic opportunities for women, many of whom became homemakers, the researchers said.
The study provides evidence that there are economic, and not just humanitarian, reasons for making sure very young children are adequately fed.
"Improving nutrition in early childhood led to substantial increases in wage rates for men, which suggests that investments in early childhood nutrition can be long-term drivers of economic growth," they conclude.