FILE PHOTO: Malnourished children

Six months ago, the terms COVID-19, pandemic, social distancing, isolation and quarantine made their way into the popular lexicon. Another word that has also gained prominence during this period is malnutrition.

Malnutrition, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), refers to deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients.

Before the pandemic, malnutrition was already a threat to society and a burden to the health care system. In the light of the coronavirus pandemic, however, malnutrition and its implications, have been further magnified. Of particular concern is protein deficiency, a form of malnutrition, which results from a lack of, or insufficiency, in dietary protein.

Protein deficiency weakens the immune system and increases the chances of sickness and death. Also, it increases the body’s susceptibility to infections.

The disruption caused by the pandemic was felt across all sectors, especially food and health. The food supply chain was severely threatened, as farmers, transporters and food sellers faced movement restrictions due to the implementation of the infection prevention protocols.

Availability of food crops dropped, prices of food went up and household earnings went down. Naturally, reduced access to food supply impacts on the availability of food needed for growth and development. When the nutritional intake of individuals and families is threatened, health is inevitably compromised.

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The recent Protein Challenge Webinar Series 4 themed ‘Protein Deficiency In A Pandemic’ provided a platform for medical and nutritional experts to discuss how to handle protein deficiency in a pandemic. This article discusses some of the salient points raised:

Increase Protein In Your Child’s Diet

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life is important. How well a child is nourished and cared for at this time is highly important. This is because the brain develops in the early stage of a child’s life and poor nutrition can cause irreversible damage to the brain. To ensure that a child’s brain develops properly, every meal must contain adequate amounts of protein. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a child’s nutrition must be a priority. One effective way to curtail the incidence of kwashiorkor in a child is through Kwash-Pap (a blend of soybeans, groundnuts, locust beans and pap)

Meal Planning and Nutrition Education

Protein deficiency is prevalent in Nigeria. This is due largely to the lack of accessibility, availability and affordability of food items, especially foods rich in nutrients. To lessen the impact of malnutrition in society, especially during this pandemic, nutrition education is key. Nutrition education is vital because knowing what foods to eat, which meal is cost-effective and healthy, helps reinforce healthy habits. Similarly, meal planning limits the consumption of unhealthy food options and instead helps ensure that one is eating a variety of foods, fruits and vegetables.

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Explore Under-exploited Foods

There are some underused foods easily accessible in our environments that we need to look into. Foods such as soybeans, sesame seeds, locust beans, bambara groundnuts, melon seeds, pigeon peas, and so on. Leafy green vegetables and fruits like garden eggs, cucumber, ube (African pear), water leaves, mint leaves, spinach, shoko (Lagos spinach), ewedu (jute leaves) are good sources of nutrients that are very beneficial to the body.
Apart from utilizing these foods, there is a need to begin subsistence farming. With a small piece of farmland, families can cultivate some of the food crops that they need. This will reduce the pressure on available foods in the markets. In times of scarcity, such as we experienced during the pandemic, families with thriving home gardens will be better able to meet their nutritional requirements.

Implement Food Supply Chain Policies

Policies to ease the transportation of food crops, especially protein-rich food crops, from the farmlands to the consumers, need to be implemented quickly. In addition, we need policies that will strengthen local supply chains for vegetables, fruits and other perishable food items. During the lockdown, there was a huge amount of food wastage, which could have been prevented with proper storage and processing. Pandemic or not, it is important, and now unavoidable, to implement policies that support food production, processing, storage and distribution.

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There are essential lessons to be learnt from this pandemic, the first and possibly the most significant being that the food supply chains need to be strengthened. In addition, the government must prioritise protein nutrition, ensuring protein food supply to households and constantly emphasizing the need for healthy diets. Ways to subside certain inputs for the production of protein-rich crops and improving access to protein-rich food must also be on the table.

The best time to act to break the vicious cycle of malnutrition threatening the future of the Nigerian child was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.