Nutrition can significantly impact an individual’s health. Adequately nourished children learn better, are more productive, have stronger immune systems and greater longevity, and are at a lower risk of non-communicable diseases than poorly nourished children. On the other hand, lack of adequate nutrition poses significant threats to a child’s life, health and long-term potential for school and work.
The consequences of malnutrition are great. Malnutrition impairs the immune system’s ability to function, leading to increased susceptibility to, and severity and duration of infectious diseases. Malnourished children often have delayed mental development, poor school performance, and reduced intellectual and economic productivity. If undernourished, women are at a greater risk of childbirth complications, delivering a low birthweight infant, and having an impaired ability to lactate. Additionally, maternal and child malnutrition are the underlying causes of approximately 35% of all deaths in children under-five, or 3.5 million deaths every year. It also is the underlying cause of 35% of the disease burden in children under-five.
Malnutrition in children can manifest itself in several ways, and it is most commonly assessed through the measurement of weight and height. A child can be too short for his or her age (stunted), have low weight for his or her height (wasted), or have low weight for his or her age (underweight). A child who is underweight can also be stunted or wasted or both. Globally, there are 195 million stunted children under-five, and 129 million under- weight children under-five. Often, stunting is associated with chronic or long-term nutritional deficiencies whereas wasting is associated with acute nutritional deficiencies or infectious diseases.
Children who are malnourished may not appear malnourished to the untrained eye. This is because chronic malnutrition leads to stunting. A child who is stunted will be short, and thus their weight may match their height and the child will therefore appear somewhat normal. However, if the malnourished, stunted child is placed next to a normally nourished child of the same age, the discrepancy is very apparent. In addition, malnourished children may develop edema (fluid in the tissues) which may make them appear chubby. Other signs of chronic malnutrition include thinning of the hair, loss of the eyebrow, skin rashes that may be noticeable on the cheeks and other areas of the body. Thus, standardized measurements are the most reliable way to determine if a child is malnourished and growing poorly.
There are many causes of malnutrition, including poverty, political and environmental forces, lack of work, lack of job skills, and disability. Regardless of the causes of malnutrition, there are cost- effective ways to prevent childhood malnutrition. Because young infants and children are developing rapidly, they are affected more by lack of adequate nutrition. The brain of an infant grows most rapidly in the first year of life. A child who is malnourished will initially show a decrease in their rate of weight gain, followed by a decrease in their rate of length gain. If malnourishment persists, their brain will decrease its rate of growth. (See pictures of normal brain growth size in a well-nourished child and the size of the brain at the same time in a malnourished child). These changes in the growth of the brain are permanent. The brain, unlike a child’s weight, will not show catch-up growth. These effects lead to decreased cognitive potential. This in turns leads to decreased ability to learn which will often lead to decreased ability to obtain work as an adult. If this malnourished child later as an adult has children, they will likely enter this same cycle of poverty. By preventing malnutrition, children can grow up to be productive adults and break the inter-generational cycle of poverty as depicted in the picture of the poverty cycle.
The objective of the Liahona Children’s Foundation is to identify and implement effective ways of reducing malnutrition among the LDS population and their friends. We do this by providing nutritional supplementation to malnourished children, supporting families in sustained breastfeeding, and teaching families about nutritional and hygienic food preparation. We also where funds permit help families access school programs that are part of their local communities and governments.