Insufficient access to livestock or animal-source foods is a major factor behind high rates of malnutrition that persist in many parts of Asia and Africa, according to new research.
It says the nutrients of livestock foods are more efficiently absorbed by the body, making them hard to replace with plant-based foods.
This greater degree of bioavailability means an egg, a cup of milk or a few ounces of meat can supply nutrients that would otherwise require large portions of a plant-based food — more than many young bodies can handle.
The report, Livestock-Derived Foods and Sustainable Healthy Diets, includes contributions from the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
It says vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and can increase their risk of dying from diarrheal diseases and measles.
But a child would need to eat at least 12 times as much of a plant-based alternative like carrots to gain the amount of vitamin A available in a small serving of eggs, meat or milk.
Livestock foods provide vitamin A in retinol, while carrots provide it in the form of β-carotene and other carotenoids, which the body must convert to retinol.
149 million children under five — more than the population of France and Germany combined — are stunted due to lack of basic nutrients
The report also notes that nutrients like choline, zinc and iron that are easily absorbed from animal products, including fish, are vital for the developing brain. A lack of them can impair cognitive development, with lifelong implications.
“Young children have smaller stomachs and rapidly developing brains, so they need foods that can be efficiently absorbed and metabolised. There are nutrients readily available in animal products, including fish, which are essential for cognitive development,” said Naoko Yamamoto, chair of UN Nutrition.
“Vegetables, fruits, legumes and cereals are essential. But nutrient-dense animal products are uniquely effective for pulling young children back from the brink of acute and chronic malnutrition.”
The report finds that the high concentration of essential nutrients in animal-source foods makes them very valuable during other life stages including hormonal and other development processes of adolescence, and meeting the high nutrient demands of pregnancy and lactation.
The report also notes that, for millions of women around the world with limited financial opportunities, livestock often offer a path to economic empowerment that provides multiple benefits—including better nutrition—for the entire household.
Undernutrition could be solved in part by greater access to livestock foods. Recent estimates from WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank show that in 2020 149 million children under five — more than the population of France and Germany combined — were stunted due to lack of basic nutrients, compared to 39 million children who were overweight.
“Overall, the evidence shows that context is key when we consider the role of food from livestock in our diets’, said Stineke Oenema, the executive secretary of UN Nutrition, which coordinated the paper.
“They have serious consequences for human health if they are absent from or deficient in the diets of certain vulnerable groups, or if consumed to excess by others.”
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