|Malnutrition or malnourishment is a condition that results from maintaining a diet that lacks nutrients / Photo by: TKnoxB via Flickr|
Malnutrition or malnourishment is a condition that results from maintaining a diet that lacks nutrients. It is particularly harmful in children because the damage to cognitive and physical development in the first two years of life will be mostly irreversible as they grow. It likewise leads to poor performance in school, which then results in the reduction of income as they enter the labor force.
Importance of Proper Nutrition
World Health Organization (WHO) Deputy Director-General Soumya Swaminanthan shared via Indian news platform Swachh India that nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life and the mother’s anemia are connected to child malnutrition. As an Indian pediatrician and clinical scientist, she emphasizes the importance of the first thousand days of the child because it is a period where most of the child’s mental and physical cognitive development happens.
If the environment is not suitable for the child in the first thousand days of his or her life, everything can go wrong. However, if the child grows up in a suitable environment and receives the nutrition they need in the said period, everything can go right. Similarly, the first thousand days is when brain development happens. The right nutrition and environment will help in the intellectual, cognitive, and social stimulation of the child.
Feeding Practices and Stunting
Evidence has likewise shown that appropriate feeding practices applied to children will lessen the incidence of stunting, which is an impaired development and growth that kids experience because of poor nutrition, inadequate psychosocial, and repeated infection. Stunting is also sometimes considered as reduced growth rate in human development.
Swaminanthan mentioned the importance of the environment in the growth of a child because 50% of malnutrition cases recorded by WHO are linked with intestinal worm and repeated diarrhea caused by insufficient hygiene, inadequate sanitation, and unsafe water. The environmental enteropathic disorder (EE) is also highlighted by Swachh India. It is a disorder of chronic intestinal inflammation common among kids living in a low-resource environment. With such a disorder, it reduces the absorptive capacity of the intestines and alters their barrier integrity. Diarrhea is one of the major health burdens among kids in India.
“I would just like to give stress that it’s really important to keep up the focus on sanitation as well as clean drinking water,” she added.
Sanitation, Environment, and Malnutrition
According to data provided by The World Bank, about 2.3 billion people in the world live with no access to basic sanitation service and almost 892 million of these individuals defecate in an open space. Instead of toilets, they use open bodies of water, forests, bushes, and fields. Poor sanitation further costs billions in some countries. Tackling sanitation challenges leads to improved nutrition, increased attendance at school, better environmental stewardship, improved competitiveness of cities, lower disease burden, and reduced stunting, among others.
Girls and women face a loss of personal dignity, safety risk, and shame if they don’t have a toilet at home as they have to wait for the night to relieve themselves, pointed out UNICEF India. Open defecation increases children’s risk of microbial contamination, which also leads to diarrhea. This makes them more vulnerable to opportunistic infections and malnutrition.
Maternal Anemia and Children Malnutrition
Another topic mentioned by the Indian news site is anemia in mothers. Citing a UN report, the daily said that 51.4% of women in India who are in their reproductive ages suffer from anemia. If the mother is anemic, it will have a significant effect on her children’s nutritional status. In India alone, anemia is the underlying cause behind the 20-40% maternal deaths. India has a high percentage of maternal deaths caused by anemia compared to other South Asian countries. Globally, India also has the highest number of anemic people based on a 2016 National Family Health Survey.
Our World in Data, a scientific online publication that focuses on large global problems, details the list of countries with the highest prevalence of anemia in pregnant women in 2016. They based it on the number of pregnant women whose hemoglobin level is lower than 110 grams per liter at sea level. Countries with high prevalence of maternal anemia include Gabon (60.6%), Togo (61.4%), Guinea (61.4%), Yemen (63%), Cambodia (55.8%), India (50.1%), Pakistan (51.3%), Myanmar (53.8%), Central African Republic (52.3%), Chad (52.1%), Nigeria (57.8%), Mali (58.4%), Mozambique (50.7%), Angola (50.8%), Burkina Faso (57.5%), Cote d'Ivoire (59.3%), Indonesia (42%), Saudi Arabia (45.5%), Mauritania (44.6%), Cameroon (49.3%), and Azerbaijan (40.1%).
Countries with the lowest prevalence of maternal anemia include the United States (16.2%), Mexico (19.6%), and Canada (17.4%).
Our World in Data also detailed the countries with the highest share of undernourished population in 2016 as follows: Madagascar (43.1%), Zimbabwe (46.6%), Zambia (44.5%), Central African Republic (61.8%), North Korea (43.4%), and Uganda (41.4%). Countries with the lowest number of undernourished populations are the United States, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Australia, Norway, the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Spain, and Kazakhstan, among others. All these countries have an undernourishment score of 2.5% based on the F and Agriculture Organization hunger indicator.
Malnutrition affects society at large because it increases healthcare costs, slows economic growth, and lowers productivity, creating a cycle of ill health and poverty.
Micronutrient Deficiencies or the “Hidden Hunger”
Micronutrient deficiency is another cause of malnutrition. Also considered the “hidden hunger,” children with such a dietary deficiency don’t receive the essential mineral sand vitamins they need for growth. They may have a deficiency in zinc, iodine, iron, and Vitamin A. The hidden hunger occurs if the body is not getting a proper diet. “Food without adequate vitamins, minerals and nutrients can be as deadly as no food at all,” UNICEF said.
The Scope of the Problem
Every country is affected by some form of malnutrition and it is one of the greatest health challenges that the world continues to face despite years of addressing all forms of malnutrition. Prioritizing the first one thousand days of children and the health of expectant mothers is a central part in fighting malnutrition. It gives people the best possible start in life. Aligning the country’s health system to people’s nutrition needs and building supportive and safe environments for nutrition will also create a big difference.