In the Interest of Every Woman’s Health and Nutrition

March 7th, 2022 | Viewpoint

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Originally posted by USAID Advancing Nutrition on October 18, 2021

A woman’s nutrition is vital throughout the course of her life, for her own well-being. During pregnancy, nutrition is all the more essential to both her child’s health and her own. Children’s nutrition is dependent on mothers; short maternal height and low body mass index (BMI) are associated with lower height-for-age and weight-for-height for children under 24 months of age, related to small size at birth. The latest Lancet Series on Maternal & Child Undernutrition Progress brings together new evidence on maternal nutrition’s critical role in child health and calls for more programmatic focus and research on maternal health and nutrition globally. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the need to focus on maternal nutrition, as many women are on the frontlines of the healthcare and foodservice industries, while also taking on more child and family care responsibilities.

However, supporting a woman’s nutrition and health status only once she becomes pregnant is not enough to ensure her or her baby’s health. Imagine preparing for a race only once you are standing at the starting line; that is the equivalent. Nutrition programs need to address women’s needs throughout the life cycle, from adolescence through advanced age. Fox et al. calls for addressing “the interrelation and compounding nature of nutritional disadvantages that are perpetuated across many women’s lives”. Others highlight key gaps; there’s a need for more efforts directed towards addressing malnutrition among adolescents, and improving women’s diets in particular. Healthy diets among women is a necessary part of reducing poverty and hunger. Well-nourished women are better able to provide for themselves and their families. Boosting a woman’s nutrition can have a ripple effect on the rest of her household and community.

USAID Advancing Nutrition explored the availability of program resources for improving women’s diets in low- and middle-income countries, throughout the life cycle, by conducting a gap analysis of Social and Behavior Change (SBC) resources. We identified five key gaps among tools in this area of nutrition programming:

  1. Limited quality social and behavior change resources for women’s diets exist compared to other health and nutrition topics.
  2. Of the resources that do exist, there are major gaps in resources to support women and girls outside of pregnancy and lactation.
  3. Most resources focus narrowly on improving women’s knowledge and attitudes about nutrition; there is a gap in resources to address societal or structural factors impacting women’s diets, including access to safe, affordable, and diverse diets.
  4. Resources need to have more intentional engagement of the people who can — and need to — support women’s diets (e.g. partners, family members, and community leaders).
  5. Media stakeholders, market vendors and regulators, the agriculture sector, and workplaces need more attention.

Given the lack of programmatic evidence and tools for improving women’s diets, USAID Advancing Nutrition developed a women’s diets learning agenda to synthesize learning and findings related to healthy diets, with a focus on pregnant and lactating women, across our work. We are collecting and analyzing data on the improvement of women’s diets through food market environments, demand generation, family diets, policy implementation, and counseling and health service delivery. The importance of ensuring the multi-sectorality of nutrition programming became clear through this exercise.

By definition, women’s diets also have a gendered element. Have you come across a difference in how diets and food in general are discussed for and with women and girls, as compared to men and boys? Reflecting on our own experiences with gender dynamics in our homes and communities can reveal just how important it is to take gender into consideration. Without considerations specific to these dynamics, nutrition and development programs for the whole household may not lead to women’s healthy diets. In many contexts, inequitable intrahousehold food allocation, food-based norms, and women’s personal norms limit their food choices. Influencers and people in positions of power, especially men, must be a part of the solution to improving women’s diets and held to account as such. Community-based interventions have high potential to bring together the sectors needed to make healthy diets accessible for women throughout the course of their lives. All women, regardless of maternity, reproductive status, age, or life stage, deserve access to nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive resources through community-based approaches that can support and sustain social and behavior change.

Growing and broadening the focus on maternal nutrition to women’s healthy diets can help funnel nutrition programming funds to what we believe would have the greatest impact: healthier women, children, and communities. Add a comment to share your thoughts on how the nutrition and development community can increase the focus on women’s diets to improve health outcomes for all.

Written by Victoria Anders, Project Officer, USAID Advancing Nutrition 

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