No hunger doesn’t mean no malnutrition

Pacific island kids might have a full plate – but is it wholesome?

Malnutrition is not necessarily the sole result of deprivation. By definition, malnutrition is the lack of proper nutrition, caused by not having enough to eat, not eating enough of the right things, or being unable to use the food that one does eat. NGOs tend to concentrate on the first part of this definition – lack of proper nutrition caused by not having enough to eat. They seldom focus on malnutrition caused by not eating the right things.

Dev Nadkarni

A recent report on global child malnutrition* trains the spotlight on the parlous state of affairs as regards the health of children and young mothers in most parts of the developing world.

While child malnutrition has been a subject of much study over several decades, the focus has generally been on health and wellbeing. New research as outlined in this report, however, shows its far-reaching consequences on a range of matters that go well beyond health to include the quality of human resources, the economic performance and the wealth of nations.

Consider these facts, for instance: malnourished children score seven per cent lower in math tests and are 19 per cent less likely to be able to read at the age of eight years; Poor health and education limit job prospects with childhood malnutrition cutting future earnings by at least 20 per cent. Children with good nourishment are 13% more likely to be in the correct grade at school, therefore boosting lifelong skills.

The report investigates in great depth the effect malnutrition has on cognitive development and education and the over all effect this in turn has on economic outcomes in the life of the child and its impact on national development. The study is exhaustive and multi disciplinary offering a number of perspectives on a global issue that has hitherto been largely seen as one related primarily to health and little beyond that.

According to estimates in this report that the global Non Government Organisation Save the Children has put together, current levels of childhood malnutrition could cost the global economy $125 billion when today’s children grow up. And the cost of fixing this gargantuan problem would be more than 100 times bigger than the funds and resources needed to provide good nutrition to all of the world’s malnourished children.

Once again, like most other problems that weigh down human development programmes around the world, the issue not necessarily one of funding but rather of priorities. For every dollar that the countries of the world spend on health, housing and education, they spend seven on acquiring weapons and flexing their muscles against neighbours and adversaries. And whatever meager funding is finally available for human development programmes, the manner in which this funding is disbursed and in which the projects are implemented deliver a far less than desirable result.

Ultimately, it is political will and efficient administration that determines the success of all human development programmes everywhere in the world. Child malnutrition is no exception. When it comes to the fast growing economies like India and many other South Asian and South East Asian nations, the report makes for grim reading. Their economic growth rates belie the reality of the state of affairs that critical human development issues like child malnutrition find themselves in.

No problems in the Pacific?

I am not surprised that the Pacific, more specifically the Pacific islands region, finds no mention in this report. The idea of malnutrition has for decades been purveyed by images of famished, rickety children, their rib cages prominently showing, often pictured with their siblings and mother in the squalor around their living spaces. Poverty and hunger are concomitant in such imagery. This report, like all others on the subject, tends to reinforce these images of deprivation related malnutrition.

Though economic poverty is rife in the Pacific islands region, it is quite different from the poverty that people in Sub Saharan Africa and the remote areas of Asia experience. For one, being blessed with abundant natural resources, hunger has never really been a concern in this region in recent memory. One is unlikely to associate those heartrending images of naked hungry children – which NGOs are so fond of purveying to drive home their point – with this region. But does that mean that child malnutrition does not exist in the Pacific islands region?

One would wish that were indeed the case. Though the report completely glosses over this region because of its preoccupation with malnutrition driven by deprivation as in the case of the poorer parts of Asia and Africa, it does not necessarily mean that malnutrition does not exist around the region. It may not be visually obvious as in the case of Africa and Asia, but health indicators around the region indicate that it is indeed rampant.

Malnutrition is not necessarily the sole result of deprivation. By definition, malnutrition is the lack of proper nutrition, caused by not having enough to eat, not eating enough of the right things, or being unable to use the food that one does eat. NGOs tend to concentrate on the first part of this definition – lack of proper nutrition caused by not having enough to eat. They seldom focus on malnutrition caused by not eating the right things.

This is exactly the Pacific’s problem: not eating the right things; moving away from the traditional wholesome diet and changing, largely sedentary lifestyles, with little scope for exercise. This is also why the region does not find mention in the report. The islands face a different kind of malnutrition – one caused not by the lack of food but by plenty of food with little or no useful nutritive value in it.

The singular fact that the Pacific islands comprise one of the world’s fattest regions is enough of a pointer that something is seriously wrong with this region’s nutritional priorities. And the fact that the incidence is growing means that youngsters are beginning on the wrong footing. Empty calories and high fatty content coming from highly processed and packaged imported food have all but replaced the traditional, nutritive diets of islanders – diets that helped them adapt to their environment across millennia.

Processed and packaged foods are virtually devoid of micronutrients that are extremely essential in early childhood development. Micronutrients like metals and other trace elements like zinc, iron and magnesium are essential in extremely tiny quantities for a range of human metabolic activity including the way the brain and cognitive functions work. This is a fact that is highlighted by new research backed by extensive scientific studies in this latest report.

So, though there is plenty of food in the Pacific and virtually no hunger, the wrong imported kind, high in sugars and fat, has gained precedence over traditional diets and that is causing almost the same sort of malnutrition problems as in African and Asian nations. Most Pacific island nations have embarked on nutrition awareness campaigns at the school level but more needs to be done. Some nations have rightly clamped down on imports of suspect high calorie, high fat processed foods but tighter controls are needed.

One hopes the study had included the Pacific islands region in assaying school performance and its relation to nutrition as a comparative study to what was done in Asia and Africa. The NGO obviously thought that hunger and deprivation driven malnutrition was more important than one that was caused by plenty of non-nutritious food.

* “Food for thought – tackling child malnutrition to unlock potential and boost prosperity”, Save the Children, 2013.

First appeared in Islands Business magazine, July 2013