World experts meet to find solutions to malnutrition

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pretoria - More than 60 world nutrition experts are currently meeting at the World Health Organisation (WHO) headquarters in Geneva this week to revise guidelines and identify solutions to tackle the growing problem of malnutrition.

According to WHO, malnutrition, including under-nutrition and obesity, accounts for 11 percent of all diseases and long-term poor health and disability, and leads to stunted growth and wasting in nearly 300 million children.

The organisation revealed that four million children die each year from nutritional risks including being underweight, vitamin and mineral deficiency, particularly vitamin A, iron, iodine and zinc.

WHO's Director of Nutrition for Health and Development, Francesco Branca, said while lack of food can lead to serious health problems, too much food can have the same affect, pointing out that 43 million children under the age of five are overweight.

"We are seeing that often we have in the same countries, at the same time, the presence of under-nutrition and overweight. We are seeing that this increase in overweight figures is becoming a problem in developing countries. 

"We have the greatest increase in overweight figures in Africa, particularly North Africa and we now can say that perhaps the proportion of the number of children who are overweight is actually larger in developing countries than in developed countries," said Branca.

The WHO also reported that about one-third of the 1.5 billion overweight people in the world are obese. Approximately 35 million of the 43 million overweight children are in developing countries, with the largest numbers in Asia. The fastest overweight growth rates are in Africa.

"Today's children are becoming overweight because they are more sedentary than in the past. Simply put, they are eating more than they need. The highly refined, processed high-energy density food available in rich countries also is widely available in poor countries and these foods are high in sugar and fat content," said WHO.

Professor of nutrition at Cornell University, Rebecca Stoltzfus, said the overweight and obesity epidemics were now present in every country in the world, noting that the conditions of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, being overweight and obese are related in multiple ways. 

"The kinds of diets that lead children to become overweight - the high sugar, high fat diets - tend to be relatively low in essential vitamins and minerals. There is evidence emerging that the condition of overweight or obesity also changes one's metabolism of key minerals, such as iron, so that obese individuals do not absorb and metabolise iron normally," said Stoltzfus.

She also noted that being underweight in women and children is responsible for more premature deaths and disability than any other preventable risk factor - more than unsafe sex, use of tobacco and being overweight.

Child obesity can also lead to serious health consequences, including the early onset of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain cancers.