Expert Commentary

Diet quality, child health and food policies in developing countries

2014 study from a scholar at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy that looks at child health and food policies in developing countries, including Bangladesh, India, Kenya and the Philippines.

empty plate
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The problem of hunger and undernourishment is well known across the globe. According to the World Food Programme, approximately 795 million people — or about 1 in every 9 on the planet — do not have enough food to lead healthy, active lives. The problem is concentrated largely in developing countries, where nearly 13 percent of residents are undernourished. The consequences are severe as poor nutrition is the direct cause of nearly half of the deaths of children worldwide who are under the age of 5. Government and community leaders have attempted to battle the problem through a variety of food-related policies and food assistance programs. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which has operated food assistance programs in more than 150 countries, alone spent nearly $2 billion on food assistance in fiscal year 2013.

Many food assistance efforts focus on children — malnourished children, pregnant women and nursing mothers receiving specialized nutritional support. A multitude of studies indicate that without proper nutrition, children’s physical and mental development can be compromised. For example, a 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience suggests that children who grow up poor have smaller brains, possibly from a lack of nutrition and other circumstances. A 2003 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that Peruvian children who were ill with diarrhea 10 percent of the time during their first 24 months of life were shorter than children who had not had diarrhea.

A scholar from the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy sought to determine the specific factors that should be considered when creating and fine-tuning food policies as they relate to children in disadvantaged areas. In a 2014 study published in The World Bank Research Observer, “Diet Quality, Child Health, and Food Policies in Developing Countries,” Professor Alok Bhargava investigates nutrient absorption and the environmental factors that affect children’s diets. Bhargava examined data and research collected from India, the Philippines, Kenya, Tanzania and Bangladesh to understand the role that such things as household income, dairy farming and sanitation play in improving children’s diets in both the short term and long term.

The key findings include:

  • Environmental factors such as poor sanitation and water quality hinder nutrient absorption.
  • Increasing fish output from ponds in Bangladesh helped increase children’s intake of protein, calcium and iron.
  • Taxes on unhealthy foods can generate income that can be used to promote a higher intake of animal products such as milk and meat among the poor.
  • When using height, weight and hemoglobin levels as a proxy for nutrition levels, improved nutrition led to a reduced likelihood of death in the Philippines, Kenya and Bangladesh.
  • In India, the Philippines and Kenya, calcium intake increases with household income. Interventions such as the promotion of dairy farming have been successful in boosting children’s physical growth.
  • In India, the Philippines and Kenya, improved nutrient and energy intake is linked to household income. Because absorption rates for micronutrients such as iron are low, communities may benefit from an increase in the iron content of staple foods such as rice and beans.

Patterns of food consumption within different populations depend on cultural, socioeconomic and demographic factors. Animal products are sources of protein, calcium and iron, which are key to children’s physical development. There are differences, however, in the patterns of demand for such foods and also in the availability of fresh milk and meat in developing countries. Tackling problems related to poor diet quality and nutrition in developing countries requires consideration of these and other factors. The author notes that a specific focus on the sicknesses of young children can be beneficial to those children later in life. “If policy makers can improve child health in the early years, then these children may show greater resilience in the future,” the author states.

Related Research: A 2013 study, “The Impact of the Global Food Crisis on Self-Assessed Food Security,” examines the 2008 global food crisis. A 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Health, “The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Food Insecurity, Dietary Quality, and Obesity Among U.S. Adults,” looks at how the U.S. program that is often referred to as food stamps influences participants’ weight, quality of diet and level of food security.


Keywords: food security, nutrition, diet quality, economic development, child health, processed food, food assistance, food shortage, malnutrition, food supply

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