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Why nutrition is important




The importance of food and nutrition in human development is widely recognized in both high income and middle to low income countries. Malnutrition in all its forms amounts to an intolerable burden not only on national health systems but the entire cultural, social and economic fabric of nations, and is the greatest impediment to the fulfilment of human potential. Investing in nutrition therefore makes economic sense because it reduces health care costs, improves productivity and economic growth and promotes education, intellectual capacity and social development for present and future generations.

Nutrition is a foundation for development, as is elaborated in the UNSCN brief compilation  from 2002, designed to facilitate dialogue between nutrition and other development professionals and to make the case for integrating nutrition into the work of the development community. Income poverty reduction and increased food production alone will not solve the nutrition problems of the poor in low income countries. Tackling global nutrition problems is essential for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The critical role of nutrition for reaching the MDGs was the topic an UNSCN Special Information Meeting held with ECOSOC at the UN in June 2005, and of UNSCN News 28 and the 31st UNSCN Session.

Moreover, good nutrition is a human right. Nutrition security encompasses many rights, especially the right to adequate food and to the highest attainable standard of health. It includes children's rights to food, health and care as well as survival and development. Besides that, it comprises women’s right to appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period along with adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation. This is the focus area of the UNSCN Working Group on Nutrition, Ethics and Human Rights and the topic of UNSCN News No 18  and No 30.

Nutrition is ever more important in the light of the recent financial and food price crises. These crises increase malnutrition among the most vulnerable people in developing countries, with pregnant women and children being the hardest hit. The UNSCN has developed a technical briefing note as well as an advocacy note (2 pages) on the nutrition impacts of the global financial and food crises. On 14 October 2008, the UNSCN held a Side Event focusing on the Impact of High Food Prices on Nutrition at the 34th Session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), 14-17 October 2008,FAO, Rome.

These recent crises overlap with and deepen the effects other crises. Nutrition remains a concern in emergencies like conflict or natural disaster. The UNSCN Working Group on Nutrition in Emergencies is a very active one and has pioneered cooperation and thinking in the field. One recent achievement was the  community-based treatment of severe malnutrition, such as in UNSCN Nutrition Policy Paper 21. The UNSCN Secretariat has through its Nutrition Information in Crisis Situations (NICS) reported on the nutrition situation of refugees, displaced and resident populations affected by a crisis since 1993.

Moreover, undernutrition has adverse intergenerational effects that significantly increase its economic and other social costs. This is elaborated in the fourth of the UNSCN Reports on the World Nutrition Situation as well as in the report of the Commission on the Nutrition Challenges of the 21st Century. The UNSCN News No 11 on Maternal and Child Nutrition in 1995 first presented the life-cycle approach. The first ever meeting to discuss low birth weight and how to prevent it, led to the development of a Nutrition Policy Paper No 18. Several UNSCN Working Groups also focus on nutrition across the lifecourse, such as the one on Nutrition Throughout the Lifecycle, or on specific stages of the lifecycle, such as the Working Groups on Breastfeeding and Complementary Feeding and on Nutrition of School Age Children.

At the same time the world is also increasingly affected by another sort of malnutrition, namely overweight and obesity which as proposed in UNSCN News No 29 may constitute a new nutritional emergency. The emerging global epidemic of non-communicable or chronic diseases is no longer a problem restricted to affluent, industrialized countries. It is increasingly affecting low income countries and contributing to their existing burden of undernutrition. Thus in low income societies, diseases caused by caloric inadequacy and deficiency continue to persist, but now co-exist with the growing presence of nutrition related chronic diseases; this is the double burden of malnutrition. UNSCN News No 32 and No 33 look at the double burden of malnutrition at the global level and in West Africa, respectively.

Micronutrient deficiencies being the risk factor for many diseases, can contribute to high rates of morbidity and mortality and even moderate levels of deficiency can have detrimental effects on human health. They are widespread in industrialized nations, but even more so in the developing regions of the world. Young children and women of reproductive age are among those most at risk of developing micronutrient deficiencies. The forthcoming Nutrition Policy Paper 22 will present a systematic review of multi-micronutrient supplementation during pregnancy in developing countries, looking at how these could improve iron status as well as have an effect on critical outcomes like birth weight. The three most common forms of micronutrient malnutrition are iron, vitamin A and iodine deficiency. Measures to correct these major micronutrient deficiencies are well-known. The recent UNSCN News 35 describes how the control of iodine deficiency disorders through salt iodization has been a major accomplishment over the last decades. Measures to control Vitamin A deficiencies were addressed in Nutrition Policy Papers 13 and 14, whereas Nutrition Policy Paper 9 described measures to control iron deficiencies. Since the inception of the SCN a series of different Working Groups have focused on specific micronutrients, today the Working Group on Micronutrients cover all aspects of vitamin and mineral nutrition.

Nutritional status is an outcome of a series of determinants clustered into food, health and care. Each of these clusters is essential but alone insufficient for achieving nutrition security. The UNSCN network address the causes of malnutrition at the immediate, underlying and basic level. For example, the Working Group on Household Food Security is concerned with food security of vulnerable households. Others are focusing on interactions between nutrition and health, such as the Working Group on Nutrition and HIV/AIDS. Reducing malnutrition requires attention to the three areas of food, health and care. However, in order to achieve sustainable improvements, capacity development is essential. The aim of the Working Group on Capacity Development in Food and Nutrition is therefore to assist developing regions enhance individual, organizational and institutional capacity in the area of food and nutrition.
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