World Health Day - the importance of nutrition

Posted on April 07, 2022

The World Health Organisation celebrates World Health Day on 7 April annually. The day provides us with an opportunity to raise awareness of the current health status of people around the world while reflecting on our own health and well-being. The day has become even more relevant due to the COVID-19 pandemic which continues to impact people’s lives globally. The pandemic has also had an impact on food and nutrition security. In honour of World Health Day, we look at the importance of nutrition and why we should take it more seriously.

In 2012, the World Health Assembly Resolution endorsed a Comprehensive implementation plan on maternal, infant and young child nutrition, which specified a set of six global nutrition targets for 2025:

  1. Achieve a 40% reduction in the number of children under-5 who are stunted
  2. Achieve a 50% reduction of anaemia in women of reproductive age
  3. Achieve a 30% reduction in low birth weight
  4. Ensure that there is no increase in childhood overweight
  5. Increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months up to at least 50%
  6. Reduce and maintain childhood wasting to less than 5%

Currently, the world is a long way from achieving these targets. According to the 2021 Global Nutrition Report, 149.2 million children under the age of 5 are stunted, while 45.4 million are wasted. Additionally, over 40% of people are either overweight or obese. These three forms of malnutrition can have both short- and long-term effects on people and their communities. It is therefore essential that we take nutrition seriously.

The importance of nutrition

When the topic of nutrition comes up, the first association we all should make is its connection to development. Nutrition for a baby should be prioritised from conception. Good nutrition for a pregnant woman is essential in helping her give birth safely and ensuring that a healthy baby is born. Iron and folic acid are some of the most important nutrients, as they help prevent anaemia and birth defects, and help ensure a safe birth. A baby then needs to be breastfed exclusively for the first six months, before being introduced to solid foods. During this period, a mother needs to ensure that she is consuming enough nutrients to take care of herself and her baby. From six months to two years old, a baby can start consuming solid foods, starting with pureed foods. It is important that the food that the baby is eating is healthy and diverse to ensure that all the minerals and vitamins that the baby needs for development are consumed. Sugar should also be avoided at this time because the less sugar they consume at an early age, the fewer cravings they will have later on, resulting in an overall healthier lifestyle. Good nutrition, however, should not end at two years old, it should carry on for the remainder of a person’s life.

Good nutrition is beneficial, not only for a child but for society. According to UNICEF, a healthy, well-nourished child has a better chance of overcoming life-threatening diseases, completing up to 4 or more grades in school, earning higher wages when they are older and are more likely to have a healthy family as an adult. Areas with high nutrition consumption tend to have higher incomes and growth, and this then contributes to having better quality, more diverse diets. They live healthier lives which put less strain on the healthcare system, and because they have better education, they can find better jobs. They then contribute more to the economy and have children who have good educations and find good jobs. This becomes a cycle that can eventually increase the GDP and sustainable development of a country.

In contrast, malnutrition results in children that are unable to concentrate at school and fully absorb what they are learning. This in turn leads to them not being able to further their education which usually means that they cannot find high paying jobs. They stay poor and continue to consume foods that are low in nutrition. Their children, born into a poor households with poor nutrition, follow the same path. It becomes a cycle of poverty and undernourishment. When groups of children within an area are malnourished, the area will have lower productivity levels later in life, which also means that that area will not be able to grow economically. It stunts the development of the community.

Furthermore, children who are malnourished will also be more susceptible to disease because they have compromised immune systems. They are also at risk of developing non-communicable diseases. According to the WHO, NCDs disproportionality affects people from low and middle-income countries, where quality healthcare is not guaranteed for everyone and poor diets contribute to the risk of dying at a younger age.

What steps should we be taking to ensure nutrition for all?

As mentioned above, nutrition needs to be prioritised from conception. Policies that emphasise Early Childhood Development need to be put at the forefront of food security legislation. Government programmes also need to actively support these policies. It is also important that these policies and related programmes are backed with emergency readiness plans that ensure nutrition even in times of crisis, such as a pandemic.  

School feeding programmes, food transfers and nutrition programmes all have the opportunity to not only provide people with food but to improve their nutrition at the same time. The food that is transferred through these programmes can be food that has been fortified, which can help improve nutrition too. Work-for-food programmes can also be nutrition-sensitive, depending on what food is being given. Bread or pap is not very nutritious, but if conditions are put in place to ensure meals are nutritious and healthy, it can improve productivity which improves development.

The government needs to increase subsidies and incentives for consuming nutritious food products. This can be done by increasing prices on non-nutritious products, which can discourage the purchases of such products while making healthy foods available at lower costs. Additionally, governments need to invest more into cultivating and producing indigenous crops, while also increasing food fortification research.

Concluding remarks

It is evident from the discussion above that nutrition plays a major role in the development of an individual. In the broader sense, nutrition impacts productivity, and the economy. The cost-benefit ratio of improving nutrition for children from a young age should be significant enough for governments to invest more in nutrition-sensitive programmes and encourage the practice of healthy lives, especially today.

- Author Mahlatse Makola and Andrea du Toit
Published by Andrea du Toit

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