Beyond the Calorie: The Importance of Nutrition for Education
The UNICEF Living Below the Line Challenge first raises the question of how one can find enough to eat for $1.50 per day in the United States. The AMUN participants experimented with different ways of reaching their calorie requirements–I used a five pound bag of flour to fill out about 80 percent of my calories. Fulfilling nutrition needs was much more difficult, despite the tendency for foods in the United States to be enriched. My bag of flour had added iron and vitamin B, which allowed me to easily meet those dietary requirements, but I was deficient in calcium and potassium over my five days in the challenge. The divide between calorie requirements and micronutrient requirements can be described broadly as “keeping people alive” and “keeping people healthy,” although certainly some micronutrient deficiencies can increase risk of death—Vitamin A and iron deficiencies are both widespread and incredibly harmful.
One of the most tragic elements of global micronutrient deficiencies is that some of the worst deficiencies are also among the easiest to eliminate. Iodine and iron deficiencies are linked to dramatic reductions in cognitive abilities, and yet are at most minor concerns in the developed world due to iodized salt and iron-fortified food, such as enriched flour. However, globally, about three-quarters of the world population uses iodized salt, and only about a third of the world’s flour is enriched with iron. Access to iodized salt, in particular, is one of UNICEF’s major goal. UNICEF labels iodine deficiency “the single greatest cause of cognitive deficits in the world.”
Beyond nutrients that are crucial to proper cognitive functioning, meeting the broader requirements for a healthy diet has important psychological effects. Diets lacking in certain nutrients—or even good taste—can lead to decreased energy levels, poor mental state and depression. These hinder children’s abilities to perform optimally at school and in social settings. Further, without the knowledge of what constitutes a healthy diet, or ability to make those changes, these problems will remain through adulthood.
Even in the developed world, malnutrition is a difficult problem to address, often manifesting itself as obesity. In the developed world, calorie-rich but nutrient-poor food (like “fast food”) is very accessible, often more accessible than more nutritious food, once preparation time costs are taken into account. The importance of knowing how to maintain a healthy diet shows that while good nutrition improves education outcomes, nutritional education is also necessary to ensure good nutrition. Nutrition education helps people understand their dietary needs and how the various types of food can fit into that.
Tackling malnutrition is an integral part of increasing access to education and meeting other development goals, as well. As the world struggles to ensure access to education for every person, it must also ensure that the people are able take full advantage of the educational opportunities available. Insufficient nutrition hinders this goal, creating poor psychological health, reducing cognitive functions to disability, and even causing death.
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