The Importance Of Diet In The First 1,000 Days

Nov 16, 2013
Originally published on November 16, 2013 11:22 am
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One thousand calories, vitamins and minerals, 13 grams of fat every day. Those are the specific ingredients needed to avoid stunting a child's growth physically and mentally in the 1,000 days after conception. New research from the International Food Policy Research Institute looks at the economic rationale for investing in those first few years.

And senior researcher, John Hoddinott, explains some of the consequences for undernourished children in the world's poorest countries.

JOHN HODDINOT: The most striking one is it affects people's ability to form memories, it affects attention span, the ability to process information, and it also affects development of your loco motor skills.

GONYEA: All of that has an impact on how these children perform once they get to school, once they get out of school, and on through life?

HODDINOT: No, that's absolutely right. We've got a lot of very good evidence now that shows that kids who are undernourished in the first 1,000 days perform much more poorly in school, they're more likely to drop out earlier. When they're given tests of cognitive ability, of non-cognitive skills, they perform less well on those two.

GONYEA: This all seems pretty intuitive. We've talked about early childhood nutrition programs for years, but you're saying something else. You're saying if we invest in these programs in the first three years of life, that it then yields not just significant but measurable economic benefits for a country.

HODDINOT: That's right. Our best estimates now is, in the typical developing country, a country like Bangladesh, for every dollar you invest, you get about an $18 return, a massive return. Better educated people are more productive, more productive people earn higher wages, people with higher wages earn higher incomes.

GONYEA: You actually looked at the impact of this kind of investment in Guatemala over how long of a period?

HODDINOT: Starting in the late 1960s there was a nutrition supplementation trial. When usual intervention took place, various villages were randomized to receive either this really nutritious drink that was made available to everyone, or to receive a placebo drink. After a number of years, funders really were not convinced this intervention was actually having a measurable effect, and somewhat abruptly the cut off the funding.

And what we did was we went back and found all these people as adults. The randomization, together with the fact that all sorts of other factors are controlled for means that we know what differentiates people is whether or not they were exposed to this nutritious drink. And the really, really striking feature of this is that if you're in one of these villages, you've done better across a range of lifetime outcomes.

You've got more schooling, your cognitive abilities were higher, and if you're a man, your wages increased, and they increased a lot, by about 45 percent.

GONYEA: The question of funding is always a big one. Are you proposing new money for this, reallocation of money that's being used for other things that would be better spent here?

HODDINOT: Well, there's a package of interventions you can do, and these include things like providing micronutrients like iron; additional foods for kids which are highly fortified and calorie dense. You can improve mother's knowledge about good feeding practices, provide exclusive breast feeding - all these activities, which are a mix of public and provide activities. For a typical child, it costs about $100 to put this package together.

GONYEA: For the 1,000 days?

HODDINOT: For the 1,000 days.

GONYEA: John Hoddinott is a senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Thank you.

HODDINOT: Thank you.


GONYEA: You're listening to NPR News.

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