GLASGOW, United Kingdom — Poverty affects the lifestyle options of people living in Africa. In particular, a healthier diet is more expensive than commonly consumed food, leading many African families with insufficient funds to eat unbalanced meals. Most families do not know the effects of particular foods on the bodies and minds of their children. Often, people eat what they can find or afford without taking the time to evaluate the food’s quality. The benefits of a healthy diet for African children are that it can help eliminate undernutrition and unbalanced nutrition, two of the most common phenomena in Africa. Many children develop undernutrition-related diseases, such as stunted growth and diarrhea. These diseases can lead to premature death all because of a lack of access to quality food.
Eating Lifestyle in Traditionally Rural African Families
Food is fundamental as it affects the physical, emotional and mental well-being of an individual. For this reason, balanced nutrition is important and should include all the substances needed for optimal health. Despite this, iron deficiency anemia and acid folic deficiency are two of the most common diseases in Africa.
In general, individuals in African societies eat more grain foods; however, they only eat one fruit per day, on average. It is common for African to consume soups and green bananas or plantains; certain cereals such as millet, sorghum, teff and maize and roots and tubers such as cocoyam, cassava and yams as part of their daily nutrition. Despite being nutritious to some extent, the issue is with the frequency of the meals in a day and the distribution of food quantity within families.
In a traditional rural family, the main meal is dinner. That means that, in most families, children skip breakfast. In addition, when having dinner, a scale of hierarchy comes in place. The elderly get the most food and meat while the children only receive the remaining part of what the male adults don’t eat. This can result in undernutrition or malnutrition for children.
Causes of Unbalanced and Unhealthy Nutrition for African Children
Food insecurity seems to be linked to many political, sociological and economic elements. Wars, drought, “floods and economic downturns” can negatively impact food security levels. Moreover, the educational level of parents has a strong influence on the nutritional status as well. Studies show that educated mothers are “more knowledgeable about” the quality and nutrition aspects of the food they provide to their children. “Early marriage and the high number of pregnancies contribute to increasing the malnutrition that is transmitted from generation to generation.”
Humanitarian access in food insecure communities is hindered by difficult logistics. This can mean that children might have to be displaced in more accessible communities to be fed. In addition, food price volatility, or the continuous change in prices, has made it harder for families to establish a constant budget for groceries and ensure children can have an adequate amount of food. Therefore, families with low income are not able to afford healthy and balanced meals each day. Moreover, in areas where climate change interrupts agriculture, farming and food stocks, children are more likely to experience periods of hunger and starvation.
Consequences of Unbalanced and Unhealthy Nutrition for African Children
Poor nutrient intake, especially in terms of fruit and vegetables, seems to have severe consequences for children’s development. For instance, globally, approximately 149 million children under five suffered from stunting in 2018. This can lead to children having cognitive issues, facing learning difficulties at school and lacking physical strength and physical abilities. Moreover, nutritional disorders increase the likelihood of death from malaria and diet-related diseases.
In addition, malnutrition critically affects children’s poverty by aggravating their educational attainment, lowering their productivity and restraining their opportunities for future livelihoods. Also, poverty at an early stage hinders children’s reliance skills. As a result, children not only can develop physical illnesses but also mental health issues later on in their lives as a result of their traumatic experience of poverty.
Benefits of a Healthy Diet for African Children’s Body and Mind
The benefits of a healthy diet for African children are multiple. Children can develop strong bones, focus better at school, maintain a healthy weight, have energy and grow to their full potential. In addition, studies have shown that children who consume healthy food and a varied diet perform better at school with higher levels of attendance and improved behavior, concentration and academic performance.
Having balanced and healthy meals every day positively affects children’s future productivity and integration in society as both depend upon their energy levels and school performances. Food intake has a large impact on children’s mental health because food influences the way they think, feel and behave. Therefore, children should be provided with food that can safeguard their mental well-being and prevent them from developing mental health issues.
Despite the physical benefits of a healthy diet for African children — especially in body and mind — it is important to remember that access to food is a human right that both national and international communities must recognize. “The right to food is linked to one’s right to life and dignity.” Therefore, it should be ensured for every person.
Keep the Focus on Children’s Best Interests
According to UNICEF, the main priority of food-related policies should be keeping children’s best interests in mind and then factor in commercial or political interests. Ways to solve malnutrition or undernutrition are to educate parents on the healthier food choices available for their children, ensure healthy foods are available at an affordable price and encourage fruit and vegetable consumption. Additionally, it is important to address how wars threaten malnutrition reduction and develop strategies to tackle the effects of climate change on agriculture, farming and food stocks.
Examples of successful strategies include breastfeeding, a pregnant woman’s practice that fosters children’s healthy growth and development. For instance, breastfeeding in Ethiopia, achieved positive results and reached more than 16 million children between 2010 and 2014 through a program based on the promotion of counseling, communication, community mobilization, radio campaigns and media outreach targeted at policymakers.
Another example of a successful practice concerns biofortification. This is a process used to breed three crucial micronutrients: vitamin A, zinc and iron to staple food crops. The orange-fleshed sweet potato was one of the bioproducts of this process. This achieved remarkable results applied in Mozambique and Uganda’s households because it doubled vitamin A intake and covered “almost all of the total vitamin A intake for children.” Homestead gardens — a system based on using the home garden to cultivate the food to supply a family — are another solution to malnutrition as well.
Create A More Accessible Food Environment
Children’s malnutrition is one of the main issues in Africa. Children who do not receive proper nutrition are more prone to develop physical and mental health issues. The benefits of a healthy diet for African children can increase children’s performance at school and open up future possibilities in society. African families, specifically, do not have the ability to afford vegetables and fruit every day. As a result, their children lack key micronutrients.
In some countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique and Uganda, some initiatives such as breastfeeding and biofortification have shown positive achievements in alleviating malnutrition and promoting a better and healthier eating lifestyle. Nevertheless, more work is needed. Key stakeholders need to collaborate on developing protective policies for children’s nutrition to create a safer and more accessible food environment for African communities.
– Virginia Arena