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Opinion: Malnutrition is one of the biggest challenges in India; Need to dispel 9 myths about malnutrition

Article Written By: Job Zachariah Chief of UNICEF Chhattisgarh
RAIPUR: Malnutrition is one of the biggest challenges in India because it kills 6 lakh children below 5 years yearly. More than two-thirds of (68%) of the child deaths in India are due to malnutrition (Lancet, 2017). Malnutrition reduces the Intelligence Quotient (IQ)of children by 10-15 points and it affects their education outcomes. Stunted children are likely to earn 22% less income in their adulthood. Besides, a country could lose about 6% of its GDP due to malnutrition (WHO, 2004).

Poshan Maah (Nutrition month) is observed all over India this month. There are several myths and misconceptions about malnutrition, which needs to be dispelled if we want to eradicate malnutrition. Nine myths on malnutrition are:

Myth 1: Malnutrition is always due to a lack of food

Not true. Lack of food is not the sole reason for malnutrition and malnutrition is not the same as hunger. Many children in families with plenty of food are also malnourished. Food of course is important, but the major causes for child malnutrition arepoor sanitation and unsafe water; diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia; absence of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months andpoor complementary feeding beginning at 6 months; pre-term delivery and low-birth-weight of babies; poor maternal care and nutrition; and prevalence of malaria and anaemia.

Myth 2: Poverty is the major cause of malnutrition

Not necessarily. Many children in rich families are also malnourished. Yes, the nutritional level may improve with economic development. But, interventions to promote breastfeeding practices, sanitation, safe water, washing hands with soap, immunization of children below 5 years, and anaemia prevention, will yield better results in eliminating malnutrition.

Myth 3: Malnutrition begins when the child is born.

Not correct, malnutrition sets even before the child is born and it needs to be addressed in the first 1000 days- from 270 days of pregnancy to age two of the child. Nutrition, health check-up and care of pregnant women are important.

Myth 4: Malnutrition means too thin children

Not necessarily, although many malnourished children are under-weight. But, children without required height for their age or deficient in vitamins, iron and minerals are also malnourished.

Myth 5: Malnutrition is not a serious disease or condition

No. Malnutrition is a serious condition/disease, which is the root cause of 68% of child deaths in India. It also affects the quality of life and productivity in later life. Children with Severe acute malnutrition (SAM) have 10-20 times more mortality risk and they may need treatment in a nutrition rehabilitation centre (NRC) for 2-3 weeks.

Myth 6: Giving formula food in the first six months will help the child grow stronger.

Entirely false. An infant upto six months needs only breast milk, not even a spoon of water or cow’s milk. Food introduced before 6 months could lead to infection among children. Exclusive breastfeeding would reduce diseases, malnutrition and death among children.

Myth 7: Healthy foods are expensive and not affordable

No. There are several misconceptions about healthy food. Many think healthy foods are only dry fruits, cake, fruits like apple, milk products, and formula food. Locally available foods are also nutritious.

Myth 8: Some magic foods can prevent malnutrition

No single food can ensure good health and nutrition. There is so much fake information about magic food on social media. A healthy diet will have food from minimum 4 food groups like grains, pulses and protein food, oil and ghee, dairy products, vegetables and fruits

Myth 9: There is no correlation between child malnutrition and child marriage.

Not correct. Child marriage is a major cause of child malnutrition. A child bride is likely to give birth to a baby with low birth weight (less than 2.5 kilograms), which in turn could lead to malnutrition and delayed physical and cognitive development.

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