Since nutrition is often the answer to preventable diseases, international interventions are crucial
When he’s not teaching BYU public health students, Dr. Ben Crookston can be found conducting research and helping nonprofits improve maternal and child health in the most fragile settings around the globe. He specifically spends a lot of time trying to solve the problem of undernutrition (stunting and wasting) among children.
Crookston provides insight on why nutrition is an issue and why we need to invest in it. A malnourished individual is not simply at risk of being cut from the basketball team. Rather, nutrition affects many crucial aspects of life, especially cognition.
Crookston shares that when children’s malnourished bodies are not growing appropriately, their brains also fail to receive proper nourishment, resulting in lower IQ scores. These children are at greater risk to start school later, perform more poorly in school, and drop out early. Additionally, malnourished girls are more likely to give birth to low birthweight babies, perpetuating the cycle of malnutrition and poverty.
“Undernutrition continues to be a pretty big problem. It is about surviving, but it’s more about thriving…,” Crookston comments. In fact, “most kids actually get enough calories. The problem is they’re getting it from one or two sources.” For example, children in the Andes may eat mostly potatoes, those in West Africa survive on cassava, and children in many parts of Asia rely on rice.
After explaining the benefits of a diverse diet, Crookston urges us to invest in nutrition and value the health of developing countries as much as we would the health of our own children.
“If I’m trying to figure out what I can do around the world to make the world a better place," he says, “investing in programs and donating to groups that are addressing nutrition is one of the best investments you can make.”
“Just like stimulating your own child and making sure your child has opportunities to eat well and a diverse diet and eat appropriate amounts of food…” Crookston continues, “have huge benefits for them over the course of their life, the same thing happens in a developing country.”
Additionally, culture plays an important role in nutrition, for better or worse. For example, Crookston shares an example of women in Cambodia who were under the misconception that colostrum, the initial breast milk produced by the mother, was unhealthy for the baby. Because of this, mothers waited three days before putting the child to breast.
This belief put children at risk, as babies missed out on the nutrients that colostrum provides. Not to mention that babies are at greatest risk for death in the first 24 hours or first week of their lives. After the Cambodian mothers were educated, however, they willingly changed their behavior.
On the other hand, the culture of overconsumption, obesity, and industrialized food in the United States has influenced other countries, causing them to adopt these poor habits.
However, our imperfections should not prevent us from engendering change. When Crookston first started in development in the early 2000s, there were over 10 million children dying from preventable diseases worldwide each year. Today, that number has decreased to around 5 million in the past year.
Changing human behavior is not easy, but it is possible. With investment in nutrition, many can thrive, rather than simply survive.