Nutrition for Optimal Health and Development

After getting her first degree in nutrition, Dr. Eden Tareke studied food toxicology and food bio-chemistry. As a food scientist she has done research in Sweden and the USA and a preliminary study on Eritrea’s nutrition status. She is now working on the development of a national strategic plan on nutrition being developed by the Ministry of Agriculture along with partners with a view to improving nutrition in Eritrea. An excerpt of an interview with Dr. Eden on the objectives of the development of nutrition Social Behavioral Change Communication (SBCC) Roadmap and Manual and the way forward follows.

• What are the efforts that are being made to develop a national strategic plan on nutrition?

Various activities have been carried out to sensitize stakeholders to nutrition. It is mainly aimed at developing a multi-sectorial strategy in nutrition security and Social Behavioral Change Communication in nutrition. There have been misconceptions about nutrition. Even if there is plenty of production, lack of correct understanding of balanced diet has been a challenge. We have been witnessing people suffer from nutrition-related communicable and non-communicable diseases in spite of the availability of sufficient food.

We did research known as trial on food practices, which is a form of nutrition survey. It was a very interesting survey. We first visited a village and asked the residents about their food production, what kinds of food they have in their house and what they put on the table. Based on an analysis of the information, we suggested how they could improve their nutrition at a household level using the resources they have. We did this at household and community levels. We understand that by making a small change in people’s awareness, we can make a big change in nutrition security. So, the efforts that are being made are directed at making sure that we have correct understanding about nutrition and bringing about behavioral change through an effective and efficient approach.

• How important is nutrition in a society?

Nutrition is a very important part of national development. Improvement in nutrition is the first step that needs to be taken for a nation to develop. Nutrition is a foundation for health. Almost 80% of both communicable and non-communicable diseases could be avoided by appropriate nutrition. A well-nourished child is more likely to escape poverty and to contribute to the development of a nation and a well-functioning development program also contributes to the nutrition of a child, completing a positive loop of development.

An unbalanced diet could occur in two different ways, either due to deficiency of food or due to overconsumption and improper consumption of food. An unbalanced diet may lead to non-communicable diseases that could in the first place have been prevented through proper nutrition. A non-communicable disease can lead to dependency on medicine with all its financial and other drawbacks. In short, for Eritrea, nutrition is a very important part of its development programs.

• What are the expected goals and what achievements have been made so far?

For the time being, we are expecting to have a Social Behavioral Change Communication manual that will help us to change the behaviors that are preventing us from achieving nutrition security. The biggest achievement of the workshops that have been carried out so far is the understanding of what nutrition is and the recognition of the need for a multi-stakeholder approach to achieve the desired nutrition security. But the direct effect of the workshops is that a Social Behavioral Change Communication manual will be developed.

• Why is nutrition so important in a child’s first 1000 days?

Eighty percent of the development of a child takes place before the child is two years old, and the time from conception, until a child turns two years of age, is 1000 days. Both the mental and physical developments of a child take place during that time. This time is a window we can use to make a life-long change. For instance, if the neurology of a child is done at an older age there isn’t much to improve, and that is why proper nutrition is needed more when women are pregnant and breastfeeding and until the child is two.

• What is the result of the research you did on nutrition?

We have done two research studies although we haven’t presented the findings of the latter, which includes the six regions of the country. One of the biggest challenges we have is ‘lack of awareness’ and what we can see is that a rise in the level of awareness of communities can make a lot of change. We tend to equate food production to nutrition. But nutrition is more than just food production. When we talk about nutrition we also talk about malnutrition, and the scope of nutrition needs to include optimal health which is much bigger than prevention. The main finding I’ve observed is that awareness about nutrition can bring about a lot of change just like an increase in food production.

• Can nutrition security be achieved in the envisaged time frame?

Definitely! We can do that. I have to say that if we have a multi-stakeholder approach to nutrition, the goal that has been set out is achievable. When we talk about nutrition it’s not only about having food on the table but also about the safety and standard of the food and identifying food items that can boost health. We have a lot of wild vegetables and fruits that we can add to the list of food on the table. Our people readily comply with guidelines, and the big trust they have in the government has been helpful in implementing projects of any kind. It should be noted that a consolidated approach of multi-stakeholders, where all stakeholders know their role, is quite imperative in achieving food and nutrition security. So, yes! it is achievable.

• What are the factors that need to be considered to ensure nutrition security?

The first thing is awareness. Mobilization or equal distribution of food is also another factor. For instance, if we go to Assab about 95% of the population eat fish because it is abundant there. If we go to Gash-Barka, on the other hand, there is an abundance of milk, fruits and vegetables but no fish. So, we have to find ways of ensuring equal distribution of food items. If we do that we can definitely meet nutrition security.

• What can be done to improve farmers’ know-how of nutrition-sensitive agriculture?

We need to know what we should have on the table. In terms of nutrition, half of the plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables and the rest could be carbohydrates, proteins and fat. When we say nutrition-sensitive agriculture, we are saying that we should decide what to produce by taking into account what we want to have on the table. This is another area that farmers need to be aware of.

• “No one left behind” has been a popular slogan used in relation to development. What does it mean in the Eritrean context?

In our culture no one is supposed to be left behind. So, it is not just words for us but a way of living. It has been like that for generations and we do not leave any one behind. The Eritrean society has a history of living together and prospering together, and this noble culture, coupled with a scientific approach, will make a difference.

• Any message you would like to convey at last?

I would like to say research-based knowledge is vital for our development. We cannot live with what others find out. Research carried out elsewhere does not reflect our real needs. When we conduct an awareness raising campaign, it is based on knowledge that has been accumulated in our context. So, we have to have our own research-based knowledge.

• Thank you very much; we really appreciate it.

Thank you so much

Source: Ministry of Information Eritrea

Health Medical