Preventing Malnutrition

What is Malnutrition?

A condition caused by lack of nutrients and failure to thrive, leading to loss of immunity, infections, and serious illnesses. Malnutrition refers to a serious condition where a person’s (especially children and older adults) food and drinks do not contain the right amount of nutrients. Malnutrition can also be called “poor nutrition” and it comes in different forms such as: 

Undernutrition: this is when a child does not get enough nutrients. This results in a child becoming wasted (low weight-for-height), stunted (low height-for-age) or underweight weight-for-age).

Overnutrition: this is when a child gets more nutrients than necessary. This results in a child becoming overweight or obese and developing in later years diet-related noncommunicable diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers).

Micronutrient-related malnutrition: this is when a child does not have enough micronutrients deficiencies (a lack of important vitamins and minerals) or micronutrient excess (too much of important vitamins and minerals). 

Drivers of Malnutrition: According to UNICEF, poor diets are damaging children’s health all over the world even in Nigeria. The factors driving unhealthy diets about children are poverty, urbanisation, lack of access to food, worm infestations and poor eating choices.

It is estimated by UNICEF, that 5 in 10 children who are under five are malnourished (stunted, wasted or overweight); and 3 in 10 children aged 6 to 23 months are living on poor diets in Nigeria. This condition is most commonly seen in vulnerable population groups like young kids and older adults. According to WHO, malnourished kids do not perform well as adults and are at high risk of being poor adults.

How we know about a malnourished child: Children are monitored for malnutrition by arm circumference measure. With this method, a health professional can measure the severity of malnutrition in a child. Detecting the condition early can have a powerful impact on a child’s survival.  A well-nourished child is healthier, stronger, more resilient and able to resist diseases.

What foods prevent malnutrition? To prevent malnutrition in all its form as well as noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancers, a healthy diet will be very helpful. Healthy dietary practices are to start early in life like breastfeeding which fosters healthy growth and improves cognitive development and may have long term health benefits.

Note that a diversified, balanced and healthy diet will vary depending on individual characteristics (e.g. age, gender, lifestyle and degree of physical activity), cultural context, locally available foods and dietary customs. However, the basic principles of what constitutes a healthy diet remain the same. 

Malnourished kids should receive vitamin A supplementation and deworming.

Ready therapeutic food is a peanut paste, ready to eat packed with nutrients given to children with malnutrition 6 months and older. 

The Eatwell Guide shows the proportions of the main food groups that form a healthy, balanced diet: 

• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. Buy fruits that are in season like pawpaw, mango, sugarcane, guava, pineapple and banana. Vegetables are in local varieties like green leaves, ugu, shoko, ewedu, and waterleaf.  

• Base meals on sweet potatoes, bread, rice, spaghetti or other starchy carbohydrates; choosing wholegrain versions where possible.

• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks); choosing lower fat and lower sugar options. 

• Eat some beans, pulses/legumes, fish, eggs, meat, and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily). 

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and eat in small amounts.

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day.

If consuming foods and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar have these less often and in small amounts.

Written by Dr. Weyinmi Erikowa-Orighoye.

Also read this: on Vitamin A supplementation in severe acute malnutrition.

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