By Roger Thurow, Senior Fellow, Global Agriculture and Food, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
The link between nutrition and health spans the entire life cycle. It begins, and is perhaps most critical, in the 1,000 days from a woman’s pregnancy to the second birthday of her child when proper nutrition is particularly important for the physical and cognitive development of the baby. During this time, the child’s immune system is strengthened, a pattern of healthy growth is set and the body’s relationship to food is established. It is also the time when stunting begins or when the conditions for obesity are set – the emerging “double burden” of malnutrition -- and when predispositions to chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease are established.
It seems obvious, this link between nutrition and health. But for too long in too many places, nutrition was relegated to the back waters of the Ministry of Health and dismissed as an afterthought in international development.
It took a major health crisis – the explosion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa–to bring nutrition to center stage. As the desperately needed medicine finally began flowing into Africa–aided greatly by President George W. Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) launched in 2003–doctors on the frontline discovered that the drugs didn’t work so effectively in malnourished bodies.The realization spread that food and nutrients were also vital medicines. Many hospitals and health clinics began growing their own food; doctors became farmers; drugs were dispensed as well as vegetables.
One development worker told me back then: “Funding the AIDS medicine with no thought to food and nutrition is a little like paying a fortune to fix a car but not setting aside money to buy gas.”
And President Bush himself received a piece of African bush wisdom from health ministers on the continent. In a letter to the White House in May 2005, they thanked the President for his $15 billion AIDS program, but warned it could be largely squandered if there wasn’t an equal amount invested in agriculture, food and nutrition. Giving AIDS medicine to a malnourished patient, they told the President, “is like washing your hands and then drying them in the dirt.”
It’s the best explanation I’ve heard of how health and nutrition indeed go hand-in-hand.
How can nutrition be prioritized to improve public health goals? Tweet your thoughts at @GlobalAgDev using #GlobalAg or post them on our Facebook page.
Read previous posts in the Healthy Food for a Healthy World blog series:
The $2 Trillion Market for Fruits and Vegetables
Economic Costs of Global Malnutrition
The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.
The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.
Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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