How finding research gaps can help fight malnutrition

Women in Burundi teach each other how to prepare nutritional meals. Nutrition experts present some 20 priority areas for nutrition research in the first Global Research Agenda on Nutrition Services. Photo by: Martin Karimi / ECHO / CC BY-SA

The case of nutrition in the development agenda is often complicated. It is often overshadowed when bundled with food security, and yet donors sometimes appear clueless on how to solve one without addressing the other, leaving many to question on whether donor money is really making a dent in the global fight against malnutrition.

So what can the aid community do?

Nutrition experts on Thursday converged in New York — where development takes center stage this week — to present some 20 priority areas for nutrition research in the first Global Research Agenda on Nutrition Services. These include:

  • Describing the interactions between the food system and nutrition.

  • Integrating individual and household-level factors underlying economic vulnerability and food insecurity.

  • Role of nutrition in developmental origins of health and disease.

  • The relationship between markers of nutrition and functional outcomes.

  • Knowledge related to inputs of nutrition intervention.

Mandana Arabi, director of The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science at the New York Academy of Sciences, told Devex these proposed research focus areas dubbed “research gaps” can help shape how different stakeholders — donors, NGOs, country governments, the private sector and even the academe — can fight malnutrition.

For instance, donors can make use of the research to learn how to best deliver a specific intervention. Companies meanwhile can develop products in response to how the body utilizes micronutrients.

“It’s hard to believe, but most nutrition programs are based on supposition rather than science,” New York Academy of Sciences spokesperson shared with Devex.

Nutrition high on agenda

The report comes as the aid community’s interest in fighting malnutrition has started gaining momentum.

The United Kingdom for instance hosted a high-level nutrition summit in June that yielded billions of dollars for spending until 2020, and earlier this year, the European Commission released its new policy to combat malnutrition.

Arabi said they are not surprised with the interest given by these different stakeholders in improving global nutrition: “Nutrition is an important contributor to health and productivity, and diseases associated with malnutrition like micronutrient deficiencies, diabetes, hearts diseases … are putting constraints on the resources of all these sectors.”

The team is keen to make sure the outcomes of these proposed research topics are made useful. How? By getting them published in peer-reviewed journals such as the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, white papers and policy briefs. They also plan to present the findings in symposia and other platforms.

“We recognize the importance of engaging the general public, and ensuring there is more recognition of the importance of evidence-based nutrition interventions.”

They also plan to hold a major international conference summer of 2014 that will connect donors to groups tackling these research gaps, and the Sackler Institute is working with partners to “directly uptake and fund (through a research award) work on specific research questions (such as elucidating the link between nutrition and noncommunicable diseases),” said Arabi.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.