Marzena Zukowska

Nutrients: the connecting thread of global health

Is there a thread that connects the world’s gravest health issues, such as malnutrition, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, maternal health and undernourishment during pregnancy, and malaria? Can we draw a connection between malnutrition and heart disease, or should we be treating each health issue on a case-by-case basis?

You might be surprised to discover that something as simple as nutrients, which are also very complex, can be the connecting thread for all global health concerns. Health and nutrition are about more than just treating sickness – they are about creating a population of healthy, thriving people.

To accomplish this, everyone must be fully nourished and consuming the right amount of bioavailable nutrients – those that are in a form that can be absorbed by their body. So, we have to challenge ourselves to think big: envision a new global system – a nutrient economy – that unites sectors, now treated separately, into a broader nutrient value chain.

One of the key problems is that agriculture has become increasingly industrialized, and food processing is losing its ability to deliver a diverse diet of biologically available nutrients. Instead, much of the food we consume is product of bulk production that delivers relatively empty calories. Focusing on calories rather than nutrient content creates cycles of poor nutrition that result in learning deficits, inadequate brain development, reduced disease resilience, and chronic illnesses.

Refocusing our efforts

By putting a nutrient framework in place, we’ll be ready to face the global health crisis. The Nutrient Economy provides a new framework and perspective for tackling problems and mapping solutions, including those rooted in the social innovations of Ashoka Fellows.

Ashoka Fellow Basil Krandorff provides a great example of this shift. He began working with aid organizations in South Africa, where 70 percent of the population is infected with tuberculosis, and 80 percent of these people are co-infected with HIV. Krandorff developed e’Pap, a locally produced nutritional supplement, in the form of a modified version of a staple Southern African porridge called “pap.” Thanks to e’Pap, tuberculosis cure rates have risen by 39 percent.

Kransdorff’s work demonstrates the value of drawing connections between sectors that we often consider to be separate, and putting nutrients at the focal point. We need a food system that refocuses on delivering nutrients.

Moreover, we need an integrated approach that packages “holistic vitality” services: e.g., nutrition speaks to sanitation, education, and health care. Combining all of these creates a recipe for transforming human wellness.

Join Ashoka Changemakers in building the Nutrients for All movement that shows how human vitality, longevity, and prosperity are inextricably linked to full nourishment.

Editor’s note: this post was originally published on Virgin’s People & Planet blog, and is cross-posted with permission.

Health Care
nutrition, public health