I think I expected malnutrition to look like commercials from the mid-nineties - little kids with scrawny arms, distended stomachs, and vacant eyes. But then I spent three hours poking around on the UN World Food Programme site - here are some of the surprising things I learned.
1. Malnutrition can look like happy kids.
These children are adorable! And they don't look like they're starving. But these children are malnourished and clearly suffering from stunting. Stunting is an indicator of chronic malnutrition that reflects the long-term nutritional situation of a population. It is calculated by comparing the height-for-age of a child with a reference population of well nourished and healthy children. So, basically, these kiddos are way to short for their age.
2. Quality is just as important as quantity.
Have you ever heard of "micro-nutrients"? If you have a balanced diet you're eating them every day - whether you know it or not! They're hiding in your vegetables and lurking in your legumes. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals critical to our health and growth. So much so, that micronutrient deficiencies in iron, vitamin A, and zinc rank among the top ten leading causes of death through disease in developing countries. Sadly, nearly two billion people worldwide are not getting the RIGHT kind of food.
3. A person doesn't have to be emaciated to be malnourished.
It's called "hidden hunger". A person who doesn't have the resources to buy healthy food containing the minerals, vitamins, and proteins they need has to fill up on "cheap food" - usually resulting in a carb-heavy, nutrient-low diet. People are often said to suffer from “hidden hunger” when they consume enough calories, but suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. This form of hunger may not be visibly apparent in an individual, but it increases morbidity and mortality, and also has negative impacts on other aspects of health, cognitive development, and economic development.
4. Salt is good for you.
Well, iodized salt, that is. Iodine is a mineral needed by our bodies to make thyroid hormones that control our metabolism and stimulate proper bone and brain development during pregnancy and infancy. Some 20 million children are born mentally impaired because their mothers did not consume enough iodine during pregnancy. Iodine deficiency affects 780 million people worldwide.
5. The effects of childhood malnutrition are irreversible.
Unfortunately, if children do not receive the nutrients they need in the developmental years, the effects of malnutrition cannot be reversed later in life. Adults who were malnourished as children earn at least 20% less on average than those who received a nutritious diet, and they suffer life-long repercussions of micronutrient deficiencies, like blindness, mental retardation, stunting, and anemia - to name a few.
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*Statistics from the UN World Food Programme, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, World Vision Cambodia: