HEALTH: Better food key to malnutrition and obesity

Simultaneously tackling obesity and malnutrition may seem like “polar opposites”, conceded UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the High-Level Meeting on Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases in New York, but an increasing number of countries are experiencing higher rates of both and the answer to reducing this phenomenon is the same: better nutrition.

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Twenty nations with stunting rates of more than 40 percent among children under-five have reaffirmed their commitments to develop national strategies to increase access to more nutritious foods. The long-term effects of malnutrition and stunting among children under-five are continuing to be identified, said Dave Nabarro, special representative to the Secretary-General for food security and nutrition.

One of the more recent scientific findings is the definite link between early-life malnutrition and stunting with non-communicable diseases in adulthood, according to Nabarro. “It means we have a whole new reason to be concerned about trying to make sure good nutrition occurs in pregnancy and in early childhood.”

The Scaling Up Nutrition, or SUN, movement calls for countries to set their own attainable health targets, such as stunting reductions and lowered anaemia rates among pregnant women, during the first 1,000 days from conception to a child’s second birthday.

The damage done during that window of time is “irreversible”, said Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, at the UN conference on 19-21 September.

Malnourishment and undernourishment increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, strokes, chronic lung diseases and osteoporosis.

Obesity – often caused not from eating too much, but from consumption of unhealthy and heavily processed foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt – poses similar risks, Chan said.

“An increasing number of women are overweight or obese when they become pregnant, which places the mothers at risk of developing gestational diabetes and delivering big babies also at risk of diabetes,” Chan said.

Countries that signed on to SUN, first endorsed in April 2010, have agreed to revise and review national nutrition policies, but to do so through their own frameworks, and to their own timelines.

No targets or funding requests, such as those set for the eight Millennium Development Goals, have been called for or are needed, says Nabarro.

“We are focusing on outcome targets and saying everyone has got to work together and decide what they are going to do,” the special representative explained. “We’re not focusing on big input targets because that is not where the future lies. It is not in big funding figures.”

Country programmes

A selection of countries presented their individual plans for nutrition scale-up in the SUN annual report.

Bangladesh will refine its country investment plan for agriculture, food security and comprehensive programmes for nutrition improvement. Laos pledged to reduce stunting in under-fives to 34 percent and wasting in under-fives to 4 percent by 2015.

Niger will reduce both stunting in under-fives and low birth weights by 30 percent by 2021. Uganda plans to reduce stunting in under-fives to 32 percent and underweight rates in under-fives to 10 percent.

Mozambique’s goal is to reduce under-nutrition in under-fives from 44 percent in 2008 to 20 percent in 2020.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Mozambique, Guatemala, Peru and Burkina Faso for introducing new measures that will improve financial accountability and allow them to strengthen their individual nutrition commitments.

Revising a national plan and system to prioritize nutrition – a practice whose full implementation should involve both civil society organizations and the private sector for financial backing, the SUN report recommends – should not be a challenge, says Alexandre Manguele, Mozambique’s health minister.

“I don’t think it is difficult,” Manguele told IRIN after the forum. “Nutrition is part of the NCDs. Children need to be well nourished from the beginning in order to ensure their physical and mental health. We have to work in a creative and integrated way to join efforts and reinforce our commitment to this.”



Theme (s): Aid Policy, Economy, Governance, Health & Nutrition,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]