We may all be familiar with the face of hunger, but undernutrition may be more difficult to detect and treat. Last Tuesday, I attended a lecture by Dr. Jessica Fanzo of the Earth Institute’s Center for Global Health and Economic Development. She spoke about “Global Progress in Ending Hunger and Undernutrition.”
Some symptoms of undernutrition may include stunted growth for children, and overweightness for adults (due to a poor diet). Undernutrition is linked to lack of access to nutritious foods and poor economic opportunities.
Their Millenium Villages Project focuses on 4 main micronutrients: vitamin A, iron, folate, and iodine. These are essential micronutrients that when deficient are known to affect development, immune system function, and can increase disease risk, particularly of young children and pregnant women.
In general, micronutrients are compounds that are found in very small amounts. Plant health is pretty dependent on certain micronutrients in the soil, such as boron, calcium, zinc, iron, and chlorine.
But nutrition is complex and we do not have a full understanding of how it relates to human health, and that is why Dr. Fanzo promotes an overall approach that emphasizes a diverse diet that includes leafy greens and appropriate portions of carbohydrates and eggs or animal protein.
It is a complex problem overall because of a few major factors:
- Nutrition and health issues are “political, administrative, and institutional orphan” because it is “everybody’s business and nobody’s responsibility”
- As a result, there is a lack of political commitment
- Nutrition focused programs are difficult or less popular to fund
- Cultural factors make it tricky to gather support for initiatives
Global food issues are not just about availability of food, but of high quality food. We are still trying to figure out what that is, but we do know that a diverse diet of plants is essential to a healthy body. It saddens me to see that people consistently choose foods that are known to be bad for their health, when there are better alternatives. Especially in the United States, I’m ashamed of what our food culture has become. It happens here and it happens in poor countries as well, according to Dr. Fanzo. Women in the Millennium Villages Project’s villages eat large portions of refined maize meal daily, when native leafy greens are plentiful.
What is difficult now is, how do can people change their food choices and eating behavior? No one likes to be told what to do, especially with their bodies. If that were not true, smoking would not still be as popular today as it is.
Education and advocacy alone will not work. When given a choice between a food item that is tasty but unhealthy and a food item that is healthy but less tasty, the default is to go with the tastier item. The problem is that a lot of the “tastier” stuff is so far from natural that our bodies can’t process them as well as the plants and animals we have evolved to eat.
As a species, we need to return to the foods that have worked for us for hundreds and thousands of years, and wean ourselves off of the super processed foods that hardly resemble food anymore. For the U.S., maybe that will mean government regulations on the food industry, I’m not sure. But I think the only way that undernutrition and hunger will be alleviated in many places in the world will be through planning that involves capacity building for villagers to gather and grow nutritious food. It certainly will not solve any problems to send them corn meal grown in the U.S.
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Image credit: Flickr user publik16