Dr. Shazia Asim
Adequate nutrition and a healthy productive population are increasingly recognized not only as resulting from but also as an important condition for poverty reduction as well as economic and social development. Improvements in family diets and children’s nutritional status globally are thus vital for achieving the economic development of any country which may contribute in eradication of poverty and hunger. Dairy in general, and fresh milk in particular, are important components of such diet.
Growing consumption of dairy and other livestock products is bringing important nutritional benefits to large segments of the population of developed and developing countries, although many millions of people in developing countries are still not able to afford better-quality diets. Number of studies have been conducted on the role of animal source of food, including milk, in the diets of children in low-income countries. Some of these studies even find strong associations among young children in dairy-producing households as they are typically taller than children from non-dairy households. Still other studies have shown that increasing access to dairy products can be extremely beneficial to the nutrition and long-term health of children. Thus dairy products have a range of nutritional and physical characteristics that make them an almost ideal and wholesome food for growing kids.
Undernourished children in poor countries are often deficient in foods rich in high-quality proteins comprised of essential amino acids that constitute the building blocks for linear growth and cognitive development. This deficiency may lead to stunting which has been definitively linked to a variety of ills in developing nations, causing childhood mortality, increased risk of diseases, lower cognitive performance, which translates into lower educational success and less likelihood to escape poverty. All of it leads to a massive drain on society. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With the right nutrients and care early on in life, a child’s brain and body are able to grow to their full potential.
Dairy milk is reported to be the most widely-used nutrient-dense food for infant and young child feeding. US Dairy Export Council, Dairy Management Inc. and other partners internationally—supports dairy as a key part of the nutritional solution to stunting and establishes dairy’s superiority over alternative sources of proteins. Dairy has a higher digestibility-corrected amino acid score ( meaning that these amino acids not only fulfil the requirement of humans’ nutritional needs but are also easily digestible) than any other food and is particularly useful at closing amino acid gaps in the cereal-based diets prevalent in countries like Pakistan. The components of milk that are thought to be particularly important to supporting child growth are protein, minerals and lactose. Milk is an excellent source of all the essential amino acids including lysine which is often limiting in plant/cereal based diets. The protein fraction contains peptides and other bioactive factors that may have specific effects not only on growth but recovery from under nutrition as well. Dairy is also dense in calories, fat and various micronutrients (vitamin A and B12), as well as being exceptionally rich in calcium, which contributes to bone length and strength. Calcium deficiency due to low dairy diets has been linked to nutritional rickets and stunting in children. Milk can also be an important source of zinc in children at risk for micronutrient deficiencies and consequently repeated infections. Finally, the density of multiple macro- and micronutrients in dairy products – as well as their taste, makes them ideal for infants and young children with small stomachs incapable of consuming large quantities of lower density foods in the household diet.
Childhood undernutrition is increasingly recognized as a significant global health problem and a major constraint to economic development. The critical window for adequate child growth and cognitive development is between conception and 24 months of age and hence many recent international nutrition initiatives focus on the first 1000 days. Milk and dairy products as nutrient dense sources of macro and micronutrients play a key role in healthy human nutrition and development throughout life, especially in early age and childhood.
In Pakistan, undernutrition is a major public health concern and an important underlying factor for the high infant and under 5 mortality rate. Undernutrition is common among all sections of the Pakistani population, but is of greatest consequence in young children leading to stunting. For this reason, milk can play an important role in the diets of young children in populations with a very low protein and fat intake, where the availability of other animal-source foods is limited. There is a strong need to implement programs for education and awareness about timely and adequate consumption of safe milk on regular basis, especially in early years of life. In the current age electronic and social media must play a crucial role to serve this purpose for a healthy prosperous nation. Lastly government and other stakeholder should effectively use these resources to disseminate knowledge about safe hygienic milk, importance of packaged pasteurized milk and hazards of loose milk and this must be an ongoing project.
—The writer is an associate professor of Pharmacology at a private medical college in Lahore