February 18, 2015 | By Roger Thurow

Healthy Food for a Healthy World: Food as Medicine—the Link between Nutrition and Health

The Chicago Council’s new campaign, “Healthy Food for a Healthy World,” aims to build awareness about the important role food can play in promoting health and alleviating malnutrition.  We will publish one blog post each week exploring these issues, and the series will culminate in the release of a new Chicago Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2015 on April 16.  Look for a new post each Wednesday, join the discussion using #globalag, and tune in to the Symposium live steam on April 16.

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.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


Commentary - Africa: A Continent of Opportunity

I recently returned from a conference hosted by the Aspen Institute in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with a number of scholars and members of Congress. Over a period of several days we did an in-depth exploration of the myriad issues encompassing U.S. relations with the 54 nations of Africa.

Photo of the Week

Annette Kwamboka peels the husk off a cob of her mother's maize in Bugita, Kenya.

Commentary - Sharing Agricultural Success with President Obama

When I first got the idea back in 2008 that the women farmers like myself in central Senegal should join together to help one another succeed, I never would have guessed that five years later I would be sharing that story of success with the president of the United States. 

Commentary - Is Feed the Future delivering results? Yes – with some limitations.

Robai Nyongesa, a smallholder farmer in western Kenya, used to struggle to grow enough maize to feed her family. Last year, she was able to harvest 20 bags of maize from 1 acre of land, a fivefold increase over her previous poor harvests. Her large harvest enabled her to feed her three children, and to hire a tutor to give her children private lessons at home.

Photo of the Week

Farmers of the Faulu group in Bungoma South, Kenya, stand proudly in front of Beatrice Masila’s sorghum that has now grown taller than they are!

Call for Innovators: Bridging Dairy Data Gaps

Dairy, especially milk, can play an important role in providing essential nutrients to a woman of child-bearing age, a gestating or lactating mother, and children.