The School Blog

Hey BTW I’m in grad school (I never really blog about it anymore except for making passing references to the misery of biochem!)

But now if you’d like you can have a look at the kind of stuff I engage with at school! We have to blog for a little one-credit class we have (we do a bit during the semester and then in January we go on a DC field trip to meet policymakers working in nutrition). My assignment for this month’s blog post was to look at the Sustainable Development Goals and talk about the role nutrition played. I went off on a Yay Women’s Rights tangent. Nothing new there 😀

I think the theme of improved nutrition permeates itself throughout all of the SDGs, because it is intimately intertwined with other key issues. The two that most stuck out to me were poverty and women’s status.

First, poverty and income inequality- being a world of “haves” and “have-nots”- manifest themselves in diet quality. When the nutritional transition occurs (more animal foods, salt, sugar, and refined carbohydrate) what often results is our system in the US: it is quick, easy, and cheap to get food of poor nutritional quality (like McDonalds). It is time-consuming, difficult depending on one’s neighborhood and access, and often more expensive to get food of higher nutritional quality (like fresh fruits and vegetables). I won’t belabor the point, since we have spent much of our coursework engaging with these topics. I want to emphasize, however, how much having greater disposable income helps one be healthier. Greater access to care to catch nutrition-related diseases earlier, before they progress. Living in neighborhoods with better food availability. Time and energy to prepare food. Cash to buy fresh produce.

Women’s status (economically, politically, and socially) has a huge effect on population nutritional status. As we have discuss at length, one’s early upbringing (in utero and the first 5 years of childhood) has an enormous impact on future health status. If a child is breastfed, they have protection against obesity. If a child eats nutritionally poor foods, they may get on an overweight growth trajectory unlikely to correct itself later in life. During these critical times in a child’s life, they are predominantly under the care of their mother: first literally within her body, and then with her as their primary caregiver, as she is in the vast majority of societies.
Actions taken to improve the status of women demonstrate beneficial effects in the whole family’s nutritional status. An example is a de-facto experiment of micro finance in Bangladesh. In the micro finance model, poor people living in the same geographic area pool together to receive small loans to start businesses (more about micro finance here). In this Bangladesh case, villages were randomized to have loans made either to groups of women or groups of men. Women’s loans increased school enrollment for both sons and daughters, and improved the nutritional status of both sons and daughters. More about that study here.
Another way to improve women’s status and thus household nutrition is through improving access to family planning services. The following information is from a USAID study entitled Family Planning Improves Nutrition: Evidence from Studies in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.

  • In developing countries, 225 million women of reproductive age have unmet needs for modern contraceptive methods
  • Access to contraception means that women can space pregnancies, which is good for nutritional status. Studies show that women with closely spaced children may suffer from unhealthy weight loss, anemia, and micronutrient deficiencies. Using nutritional reserves during pregnancy and breastfeeding may deplete the mother. Infants conceived within six months of a prior birth face a higher risk of low birth weight. Closely spaced pregnancies also increase the chance that a child will be small for gestational age. Close spacing and poor nutritional outcomes at birth are also linked to poor nutritional status during childhood, including stunting.
  • Limiting the number of children a household has may help improve those children’s nutritional status. Fewer mouths to feed may help in and of itself. It may also help with specific deficiencies; a study in Ethiopia showed that children with two or more siblings are more likely to have vitamin A deficiency than children with one sibling or only children.
  • If mothers die (1 in 40 women in Africa die due to maternal causes) their children may not get breastfed, and the nutrition needs of older children may go unmet. Motherless infants, in a study in Bangladesh, were significantly more likely to experience undernutrition and die from diarrheal disease and nutritional deficiency than those with surviving mothers.

The same report also found that improving a mother’s educational status is also good for her children’s nutritional status. In Malawi and Zimbabwe, women with at least 10 years of schooling had a significantly lower chance of having a stunted child than women with no education. Better educated mothers may themselves have a better nutritional status. They also likely have greater knowledge of nutrition and improved income and status due to education.

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