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Quality and not just quantity of food is a determinant of malnutrition

Posted:  Monday, December 22, 2014

When talking of malnutrition, one tends to imagine scarcity of food. However, a new study has found that not just poor quantity of food but poor quality can also lead to malnutrition. The study, conducted in Egyptian households, found that while the mothers were obese, their children were stunted. In such cases, paucity of food was hardly the contributing factor.

This study was published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal. As part of the study, the researchers used data such as weight and height from 25,065 mothers and their children from the Egyptian Demographic and Health Surveys in 1992, 1995, 2005 and 2008. Information on the food given to children was provided by 5,357 mothers and their children in the 2008 survey.

The study found that maternal obesity in Egypt rose from 22% in 1992-95 to 32.3% in 2005-08. Although standalone stunting levels among children declined from 22.4% to 14.7% in the same period, the number of obese mothers with stunted children increased from 4.1% to 5.6%.

Analysing the diet, the researchers noted that children reared on a diet of chocolates, biscuits or sweets were 51% more likely to belong to a double-burden household, whereas children who were fed fruit and vegetables were 24% less likely to be in this category.

“Malnutrition is not only a question of not having enough food, it is also about not having good enough food. A household diet rich in energy-dense, sugary food and poor in fruit and vegetables is unlikely to provide all the nutrients that children need to grow. I would consider a child fed on nothing but sugary snacks malnourished, even if they are not under-nourished,” said the researchers.

Obesity is typically a problem in rich countries and stunting is a common feature of resource-poor countries. However, the sudden availability of cheap, high energy-density foods in middle-income countries such as Egypt has resulted in high obesity rates. Improving the diversity and nutrient contents of the whole household diet could be a way to address both maternal obesity and child stunting in such a dichotomous scenario.

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