Invest in Nutrition

Eden, a young boy of 3 years old, was just diagnosed with speech delay. This is one more illness that is affecting him. He also suffers from immune deficiency and deafness. All are related to his first year of life when he has faced severe chronic malnutrition. He looks normal, but the consequences are detrimental; this lack of food (hunger), at a critical moment in his early life, will hamper his ability to learn and hinder opportunities later in life.

This disturbing story may be the intolerable reality of children living in India or Ethiopia; but in fact, this story happens next door to us in America. Eden is one among other protagonists of a provoking documentary launched last month – A Place at the Table.

This documentary is thought-provoking mainly because it shows us that obesity and hunger are neighbours, our neighbours. Access to affordable nutritious foods in a world of plenty seems an unacceptable challenge for too many. In fact, this is increasingly the reality for many children living in both the developing and developed world, mainly because hunger and obesity are globally interconnected. We cannot pretend that it is not visible; it is in fact in our backyard. The burden of malnutrition is one major challenge in the context of the post-MDGs if we really want to achieve sustainable human development for every child in the world.

It is true that we have made significant progress over the past 50 years in the sector of population health. Life expectancies for men and women have increased. A greater proportion of deaths are taking place among people older than 70 years. The burdens of HIV and malaria are falling. Far fewer children younger than five years are dying. But this encouraging picture is being challenged by old and new threats. Africa remains the most afflicted continent, where maternal, newborn, and child mortality, along with a broad array of vaccine-preventable and other communicable diseases, are still urgent concerns. Malnutrition and stunting continue to be a long-term damaging stigma for children in Africa and South East Asia, with an estimated 75% of the world’s 165 million stunted children living there.

The link to extreme poverty is incontestable – as children in the poorest communities are more than twice as likely to be stunted, particularly in rural areas where as many as one third of children are affected.

On the other hand, more young and middle-aged adults in low and middle-income countries are suffering from obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases (diabetes, hypertension, stoke and cardiovascular disease…). These diseases are driven primarily by phenotypic predisposition and high consumption of ultra-processed foods. With increasing urbanization and shifts in diet and lifestyle, the result could be an escalating epidemic of such conditions in many low- and middle-income countries. This would create new economic and social challenges, especially among vulnerable groups.

Fighting stunting is the emerging battle in the context of optimal human development. It is the irreversible impact of not receiving enough nutrient dense foods within the first 1000 days of life, from pregnancy to a child’s second birthday. But stunting is more than a problem of stature; this lack of nutritious food also impacts the overall physical (organ as well as immune cell function) and cognitive development, and determines the susceptibility to obesity and food-related non communicable diseases later in life.

During the first 1000 days, nutritional requirements to support rapid growth and development are very high, and the baby is totally dependent on others for nutrition, care and social interactions. For example, the first year of life is a time of astonishing change during which babies in normal conditions, on average, grow 55% in length, triple their birth weights and increase head circumference by 40%. Between 1 and 2 years age, an average child grows about 12 cm in length and gains about 3.5 kg in weight. During these crucial days as well as during fetal life, the body is putting together the fundamental human machinery (similar to hardware and software for computer). This process is done over a very short period of time and requires specific nutrients like vitamin A, iron, folic acid, zinc but also protein, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and choline. The immune-system and brain-synapse development are particularly vulnerable. As a result, any disturbance of this frantic activity leaves a terrible mark. Smaller than their non-stunted peers, stunted children are more susceptible to sickness. In school, they often fall behind in class. They enter adulthood more likely to become overweight and more prone to non-communicable diseases. When they start work, they often earn less than their non-stunted co-workers. The drama of this situation is the fact that an undernourished mother is more likely to give birth to a stunted child, perpetuating a vicious cycle of high prevalence of premature death (an estimated 60-80% of neonatal deaths occur among low birth weight babies), undernutrition and poverty.

It is imperative to focus on the first 1000 days of a child’s life as the crucial window of opportunity for change. It is during this time that proper nutrition has the greatest impact on a child’s health and potential future wellbeing and opportunities. A recent publication in Lancet has reinforced this idea, and has showed that attaining optimal growth before 24 months of age is desirable; becoming stunted but then gaining weight disproportionately after 24 months is likely to increase the risk of becoming overweight and developing other health problems. UNICEF’s latest publication “Improving Child Nutrition: The achievable imperative for global progress” is closing the loop. It shows that there are proven low cost solutions for reducing stunting and other forms of undernutrition. These simple and proven nutrition activities need to be integrated together. They include improving women’s nutrition, early and exclusive breastfeeding, providing additional vitamins and minerals as well as giving appropriate nutrient dense foods, especially in pregnancy and the first two years of a child’s life.

Investing in children’s and women’s nutrition is not only the right thing to do from a human right point of view; it is also a cost-effective investment. It can increase a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by at least 2-3% annually. Every US$1 spent on nutrition activities to reduce stunting will have a return on investment of US$30. This integrated nutritional strategy as proposed by UNICEF and other international stakeholders is the locomotive that can accelerate economic growth and pull millions of people out of poverty.

Let’s work all together to be sure that every children around the world has a place at the table. This is our responsibility!

This article was publish in the Ottawa Citizen last week. This is the link:

Save the child …. Give breast milk!*

The World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated every year (August 1st to 7th) in more than 170 countries to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world. It commemorates the Innocenti Declaration made by WHO and UNICEF policy-makers in August 1990 to protect, promote and support breastfeeding (

As we all know, the first two years of a child’s life are particularly important, as optimal nutrition during this period will lead to reduced morbidity and mortality, to reduced risk of chronic diseases and to overall better development. Indeed, infant and young child feeding is one key area (or the cornerstone) to improve child survival and promote healthy growth and development.

The situation

Malnutrition is responsible, directly or indirectly for about 33% of deaths among children under five. Well above two thirds of these deaths, often associated with inappropriate feeding practices, occur during the first year of life. In fact, despite compelling evidence that exclusive breastfeeding prevents diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia that kill millions of children every year, global rates of breastfeeding have remained relatively stagnant in the developing world, growing from 32% in 1995 to 39% in 2010 (see map below to get an idea of the level of exclusive breastfeeding per country).

In reality, breastfeeding rates in the developing world have been declining until recently. This decline has been attributed to changing socioeconomic factors and the perception that infant formula is superior to breast milk. To give you a concrete example and according to UNICEF Pacific Representative, Dr. Isiye Ndombi: “In the Pacific, breastfeeding rates dropped for a number of reasons, either because mothers were being integrated into the workforce, were not supported by their spouses or were not making informed decisions about the long-term benefits breastfeeding would bring to their children. Exclusive breastfeeding (i.e breastfeeding from birth to six months) are about 40% in Fiji, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, and 31% in the Republic of Marshall Islands.”

“It’s a global trend”, says Elisbeth Sterken, national director of INFACT Canada, a non-profit agency concerned with issues around breastfeeding ( The impact of bottle-feeding infants is different culture to culture but the long-term impact would be the same – a high incidence of obesity and metabolic diseases. Why?

For example, “in Western cultures, bottle-fed babies begin life with nutritional deficiencies that may lead to health and obesity issues later in life”, she said.

In fact, it was a real surprise to read in a book entitled “Let them eat junk” that baby formula can contain 60% more sugars than regular milk. In fact, a bottle-fed baby consumes 30,000 more calories over its first eight months than a breast-fed one. That’s the calories equivalent of 120 average chocolate bars. Given how early our tastes are formed, it is not surprising that “several research studies have shown correlations between bottle-feeding and subsequent obesity. And the problem continues in baby foods, against efforts to limits the high level of added sugars.

Is it possible to advocate for an improvement of the nutritious value of baby formula and change the current trend?

The task seems tricky. Lobbying power from food companies is huge! The battle is unequal, something similar to the idea developed by Jean de la Fontaine in one of his poems. What union can there be between a clay pot and an iron pot? Because when they collide against each other, the clay pot will be broken.

Just one example to demonstrate this unequal battle: the Thai introduced a proposal to reduce the levels of sugars in baby foods from the existing maximum of 30% to 10%, as part of the global fight against obesity. The proposal was blocked by the US and the EU, where the world’s largest sugar corporations have their home offices. This is one among other examples of the lobbying power of the sugar companies.

And what happens in the developing countries?

In developing countries the impact is more dramatic”, Sterken said. An estimated 1.5 million formula-fed babies die each year because families in developing countries can’t afford the formula and dilute it, use contaminated water to mix it, can’t properly sterilize bottles, or supplement with sugared tea, thereby depriving their children of nutrition, and introducing deadly bacteria into their food.

Another important problem is related to the high level of urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa.

Slums in sub-Saharan Africa are expanding at a fast rate, and the majority of urban residents now live in slum settlements. And in fact, urban poor settlements or slums present unique challenges with regards to child health and survival.  The slums are characterized by poor environmental sanitation and livelihood conditions. Contrary to the long-held belief that urban residents are advantaged with regards to health outcomes, urban slum dwellers tend to have very poor health indicators. Then it is not a surprise to observe thaturban mothers are less likely than rural ones to breastfeed -and more likely to wean their children early if they do begin. Low rates of breastfeeding may be attributed in part to cultural practices, access to and utilization of health care facilities, a lack of knowledge about the importance of the practice, but more importantly to the reality that poor women in urban settings who work outside the home are often unable to breastfeed.

This is an important point, how can we help women who work in developing countries to act sppropriately?  It is a necessity for them to be able to breastfeed because it is good for their babies but they also need to economically survive. A dilema!

Does malnutrition affect the quality of mother’s milk?

The 2008 Lancet Nutrition Series highlighted the remarkable fact that a non-breastfed child is 14 times more likely to die in the first six months than an exclusively breastfed child. Breast milk meets a baby’s complete nutritional requirements and is one of the best values among investments in child survival as the primary cost is the mother’s nutrition. In this context and knowing the high incidence of food insecurity in the developing countries, it seems important to ask if malnutrition (or poor nutrition) can affect the quality of mother’s milk and compromise the potential benefit of breastfeeding where it is most needed, i.e. the developing countries.

In fact, a review of the literature showed that mild or moderate malnutrition rarely affects the amount or quality of breast milk that a woman produces. The mother’s dietary intake will not generally increase how much breast milk she can produce in a day. Her nutritional status before and during pregnancy are important for milk content, but generally this has only of marginal impact since her body will ensure that the breast milk receives the available vitamins and minerals. If her diet remains inadequate for a long time, the milk may contain fewer vitamins and fats as her own body stores are used up. However, her breast milk continues to be nourishing for her child, and provides anti-infective factors that help to protect the child against infections. No breast milk substitute contains these protective factors.

The response at the micro and macro levels

It’s hard to believe that something as natural, healthy and cost-free as breastfeeding needs to be promoted by health and nutrition specialists. But as World Breastfeeding Week began on Aug. 1, breastfeeding specialists want to draw attention to the many benefits of breastfeeding to mother and baby and curb the trend toward bottle-feeding infants with commercially prepared formula.

In 2002, the WHO and UNICEF have developed a Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding (, which recommends that infants start breastfeeding within one hour of life, are exclusively breastfed for six months, with timely introduction of adequate, safe and properly fed complementary foods while continuing breastfeeding for up to two years of age or beyond.

Moreover, the WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund jointly developed a code for marketing infant formula to curb aggressive marketing campaigns, especially in developing countries ( However, its impact over the past 30 years has been limited because of a series of alleged violations and boycotts.

What do we need to do to reinforce exclusive breastfeeding globally?

An international governance is needed to step in and replace the voluntary marketing code. It will help to address and correct unethical marketing that could be put in place by makers of breastmilk substitutes.

It is also necessary to develop national policies that support maternity leave, not only in developed, but also in developing countries.

And finally, it is important to work at the community level. One of the strategies could be to train low-income mothers as breastfeeding counselors and assist communities in forming mother-to-mother support groups (something similar to Saving Help Group). This strategy will increase the understanding of the risks of not breastfeeding and finally, it will reinforce the practice of exclusive breastfeeding among mothers.

In fact, if the exclusive breastfeeding rate was increased significantly, as much as 13% of all deaths of children younger than 5 years could be prevented that could represent around 1 million children under five in the developing world each year. Moreover, the promotion of breastfeeding could avert 21.9 million disability adjusted life years (8.6%).

What do we mean by exclusive breastfeeding?

“Exclusive breastfeeding” is defined as giving no other food or drink – not even water – except breast milk. It does, however, allow the infant to receive oral rehydration salts (ORS), drops and syrups (vitamins, minerals and medicines). Breast milk is the ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants; and it’s also an integral part of the reproductive process with important implications for the health of mothers.

Then, what are the benefits? Just a recap….

Exclusive breastfeeding for six months has many benefits for the infant and the mother, says the WHO. “Chief among these is protection against gastro-intestinal infections which is observed not only in developing but also in industrialized countries. Early initiation of breastfeeding, within one hour of birth, protects the newborn from acquiring infections and reduces newborn mortality. Finally, the risk of mortality due to diarrhea and other infections can increase in infants who are either partially breastfed or not breastfed at all.”

Breast milk is also an important source of energy and nutrients in children 6 to 23 months of age. It can provide one half or more of a child’s energy needs between 6 and 12 months of age, and one third of energy needs between 12 and 24 months. Breast milk is also a critical source of energy and nutrients during illness and reduces mortality among children who are malnourished.

Adults who were breastfed as babies often have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol, as well as lower rates of overweight, obesity and type-2 diabetes.

Breastfeeding also contributes to the health and well-being of mothers. It reduces the risk of ovarian and breast cancer and helps space pregnancies — exclusive breastfeeding of babies under six months has a hormonal effect which often induces a lack of menstruation. This is a natural (though not fail-safe) method of birth control known as the Lactation Amenorrhea Method.

Moreover and from a sustainable point of view, exclusive breastfeeding contributes both directly and indirectly to sustainable development. Evidence has clearly shown that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life not only improves their future growth and educational achievement, but also significantly reduces national health costs and helps prevent chronic malnutrition. Breastfeeding helps to prevent a number of diseases in childhood and later in life. It offers protection from infections, allergies and adult-life chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and cancer that rob the national budgets of millions of dollars.

Breastfeeding needs to be valued as a benefit which is not only good for babies, mothers, and families, but also as a saving for governments in the long run.

* The theme for this year’s celebration is “Understanding the past, planning the future: Celebrating 10 years of WHO/UNICEF’s Global strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding”. It has the slogan “Save the Child, Give breast milk”.


Book: Let them eat junk, how capitalism creates hunger and obesity – Robert Albritton