The link between nutrition and overall health is undisputed. But what of the link between nutrition and educational and economic achievement? VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where medical researchers and international development workers presented findings from a major study on the importance of boosting nutrition in the developing world.
How best to combat global poverty has been studied and debated for decades. While there may be no single "magic bullet" for boosting economic fortunes, improving nutrition, particularly for mothers and young children, may be a good place to start. That is the conclusion of a series of studies being published in The Lancet medical journal.
"It is clear that nutrition as a whole is an economic imperative," said Joy Phumaphi, Vice President for Human Development at the World Bank. She took part in the Washington launch of The Lancet series. "Bigger and healthier bodies lead to higher physical productivity. Well-nourished children are more intelligent; they are better learners in school. They are more productive as adults. And a well-nourished population spends less on health care. The economic benefits of improving nutrition are substantial," she said.
According to one study, some 80 percent of the world's malnourished people are found in just a few dozen countries, primarily in Africa and South Asia. Researchers say when it comes to combating the worst effects of poor nutrition, the most critical period for intervention stretches from conception through early childhood. Youngsters lacking adequate nutrition typically suffer low body weight and often have stunted growth, bringing a host of negative consequences.
"The evidence links stunting [stunted growth] to cognitive development, intellectual capacity, school performance and educational achievement. Poor fetal growth or stunting in the first two years of life leads to reduced economic productivity in adulthood," said the lead author of The Lancet series, Dr. Robert Black of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Taken on a macro-level, there is a direct link between the health and nutrition of a country's population and its prosperity, according to USAID's Assistant Administrator for Global Health, Kent Hill. "Improved health for the world's poorest people is not only a moral imperative but also a pragmatic investment for peace, security, and worldwide economic growth. Health status, in fact, is the single greatest indicator of poverty. Good health lies at the base of stable workforces and productive economies," Hill said.
How best to tackle the challenge of improving nutrition? Given the link between malnutrition and poverty, one might think the best way is to promote economic development, giving people a better chance to support, and feed, their children. But that is only part of the answer, according to Phumaphi. "Higher incomes do improve nutrition. But only slowly. Direct investments in nutrition have the potential to improve nutrition outcomes much faster than economic growth alone," she said.
And research suggests that even modest amounts of money directly targeting malnutrition can have an enormous impact, according to Kent Hill of USAID. "Food fortification [adding nutrients to basic foods] is extremely important and very cost-efficient. Every dollar spent on vitamin fortification returns about seven dollars in increased wages and decreased disability. A dollar spent on iodized salt returns 28 dollars. Iron fortification returns 84 dollars. It is hard to believe [but true]," he said.
Yet despite the importance of nutrition and the vast benefits of improving it, funding for international nutritional programs is paltry compared to the resources being devoted to other initiatives, such as combating HIV and AIDS in the developing world. That, despite the fact that more people die each year of hunger and the effects of malnutrition than succumb to the HIV virus.
But the funding imbalance may be lessening. Non-profit organizations and relief agencies are increasingly stressing the importance of boosting global nutrition. Even so, it could be years before the emphasis translates into new initiatives, and even more years before the impact can be measured.