Malnutrition in children not only problem of the poor, say dieticians

Nutrition experts have said that the children of the poor are not the only ones battling malnutrition in the country, adding that the children of the rich are also affected.

According to the dieticians, although people who are poor are more likely to be affected by different forms of malnutrition, children from rich homes are, however, more prone to being overweight and obese than those from poor families.

This, they say, is largely because of their tendency to consume less nutritious, but expensive fast food.

The nutrition expert disclosed this during exclusive interviews with PUNCH Healthwise, noting that children from wealthy homes are prone to sedentary lifestyles owing to the advancement in technology.

A registered Dietitian-Nutritionist at the Alex Ekwueme Federal University Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, Nwabumma Asouzu, told our correspondent that people need to understand that malnutrition is not only problem of the poor, reiterating that children of the rich are also faced with the challenge.

The dietician explained, “Malnutrition has two spectrums. Undernutrition and overnutrition, which is mostly due to
macro-nutrient deficiency i.e., inadequate diet.

“Another aspect is micronutrient deficiency which is a hidden malnutrition having its own effects on growth and development.

“Once we understand this, we would realize that malnutrition is not the problem only for the poor. The poor are grappling with undernutrition and the rich are grappling with overnutrition.

“Affordability may not be the issue with most of the community, but lack of awareness. Lack of awareness on recommended dietary diversity and which locally available food can constitute a diversified diet, along with misconceptions in the community on what food to eat, when to eat, how much and how many times to eat, would need to be addressed.”

Asouzu also expressed concern that the social media was exposing parents to making wrong food choices, a situation she was fuelling the child malnutrition burden in the country.

“The influence of social media has increased wherein information available may not always be evidence based and correct.

” So, making the wrong food choices, increasing portion sizes, erratic eating schedules are the reasons”, she said.

The United Nations Children’s Fund had recently raised the alarm that Nigeria loses about 100 children per hour due to malnutrition. This translates to about 2,400 deaths daily.

UNICEF’s Chief Nutrition Officer in Nigeria, Nemat Hajeebhoy who disclosed this during an interaction with media executives, said one-third of children in Nigeria lived in severe food poverty, adding that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life offered a unique window of opportunity for preventing undernutrition and its consequences.

“Nigeria is ranked number one in Africa and second in the world in terms of malnourished children.”

Asouzu said women, infants, children and adolescents were particularly at risk of malnutrition.

She stated that optimizing nutrition early in life—including the first 1000 days from conception to a child’s second birthday—ensures the best possible start in life, with long-term benefits.

Continuing, she said, “According to a study by Freedman (2006) in less developed and developing countries, it has been observed that wealthier families are more prone to being overweight and obese than poor families.

” This is largely because of their tendency to consume less nutritious, but expensive fast food, over nutrition.

“Children from wealthy homes are prone to sedentary lifestyles owing to the advancement in technology e.g. having to stay long at a place playing video games thereby having less time for physical activities/exercise, going to school by car to less than a kilometer distance, etc.

“But other factors play an important role – for obesity – lack of physical activity is a major driver, sedentariness has increased tremendously.”

Giving insight into the health and economic implications of malnutrition, the dietician said, “Poverty amplifies the risk of, and risks from malnutrition. People who are poor are more likely to be affected by different forms of malnutrition.

“Also, malnutrition increases health care costs, reduces productivity, and slows economic growth, which can perpetuate a cycle of poverty and ill-health.

“Childhood malnutrition, including overnutrition, increases a child’s susceptibility to several different infections and often delays recovery from these infections thus posing a large burden of disease in developing countries.

“Malnutrition, in all its forms, includes undernutrition (wasting, stunting, underweight), inadequate vitamins or minerals, overweight, obesity, and resulting diet-related noncommunicable diseases.”

Asouzu went on to say that household income remains a crucial factor in determining both childhood health and nutrition, adding that malnutrition mostly occurs in low- and middle-income countries.

The dietician further said, “Globally in 2020, 149 million children under five were estimated to be stunted (too short for age), 45 million were estimated to be wasted (too thin for height), and 38.9 million were overweight or obese.

“Around 45 percent of deaths among children under five years of age are linked to undernutrition. These mostly occur in low- and middle-income countries.”

Asouzu called for increased mothers’ education, affirming that it is increasingly recognised that a mother’s education provides better access to knowledge and awareness, proper feeding practices, and better hygiene.

“It is important for mothers to avoid ultra-processed foods in the child’s diet and make conscious healthy choices”, she counselled.

Also speaking with PUNCH HealthWise, a Lagos-based Registered Dietician-Nutritionist, Cynthia Onyekwere, said lack of nutritional knowledge and poor complementary feeding practices contribute to the burden of children malnutrition in the country.

Onyekwere explained, “When a child’s diet is lacking in energy, protein and essential micronutrients, over time it leads to a compromised immune system which in turn increases his or her chances of coming down with infectious diseases.

“Lack of nutritional knowledge, poor complementary feeding practices, low socioeconomic status – to mention but a few – are some of the causes of protein-energy malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies amongst children.”

In a 2016 article published on its website titled, Child malnutrition in Nigeria: Evidence from Kwara State’, the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington DC, United States, said poverty and a lack of awareness seem to be at the heart of the problem of childhood malnutrition in Nigeria.


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