Targeting Malnutrition: Isotopic Tools for Evaluating Nutrition Worldwide
The Global Nutrition Challenge

Good nutrition is essential if people are to achieve their full potential for growth and performance. Yet over 800 million people around the world are chronically malnourished, and more than a billion are sick or disabled because of nutrient deficiencies.

The global economic and social costs of malnutrition are enormous. Each year, chronic malnutrition is a key factor in the deaths of at least 13 million children under five years of age in the developing world. Each year, developing countries lose millions of days in labour due to nutrionally related illnesses. And while the economies of Africa, Asia and Latin America are the most adversely affected, those who pay the greatest individual price are women and children living in poverty.

Malnutrition most seriously affects:

Malnutrition: a moving target

Addressing the nutrition challenge requires more than boosting economic growth or producing greater harvests in developing countries. Nor is it simply a matter of increasing shipments of food aid. Because many people in developing countries do not have access to a diverse food supply, an increase in calorie consumption alone cannot solve the problem of micronutrient deficiencies. These nutrients are not present in many foods, and people do not have a natural hunger for them.

Many developing countries, moreover, are industrializing rapidly. Vast numbers of people are migrating to cities, and the face of rural areas is being transformed as agriculture is modernized. Affluence is expanding alongside burgeoning slums and shantytowns. Such dramatic changes in the social and economic landscape have profound nutritional and public health consequences across the developing world.

Shaping nutrition interventions

Sustainable solutions to nutrition problems can evolve out of targeted assistance programmes aimed at enhancing food security and dietary quality at the community and household levels. Diversifying, supplementing and fortifying diets are among the key interventions for improving nutrition. But many other economical and social development initiatives have measureable nutritional impacts.

To provide effective support to such efforts, multilateral, bilateral and private assistance must be carefully formulated to address local needs and circumstances, and to complement local resources, and cultural and behavioural patterns. Moreover, to maximize the benefits from investments by national governments and aid donors, the most advanced tools must be applied to designing and monitoring such programmes and evaluating their nutritional impacts.

Isotopic-based techniques are uniquely well suited to targeting and tracking progress in food and nutrition and many other development programmes. They are tools for evaluating people's nutritional status and food quality irrespective of the intervention. The information they produce can:

Isotope techniques have been used extensively in industrialized countries to analyze human energy requirements, body composition, and the metabolism of important nutrients such as protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. The information acquired has led directly to many improvements in nutrition and health. These techniques have only begun to be applied in developing countries, where they can not only benefit millions through improved nutrition, but serve as specific indicators of broader social and economic advances.

IAEA's role in promoting better nutrition

Founded in 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an intergovernmental organization that promotes the peaceful applications of atomic energy for humanity's benefit while simultaneously guarding against their destructive use.

Over the decades, Agency programmes and activities have broadened as nuclear techniques gained wider applicability in addressing economic, social and environmental problems. The IAEA is currently involved in such diverse areas as nuclear power, non-proliferation, nuclear medicine, marine sciences, food and agriculture, industry, water resources management, human health and environmental protection.

Together with governments and aid donor partners, the Agency is developing and transferring tools, based on nuclear science and technology, that can be used to evaluate nutritional status and nutrients in foods around the world. This expanding Agency involvement comes in response to a growing commitment by many Member States to improve the nutritional well-being of their populations. To date, the IAEA has been a partner in addressing food and nutrition problems in more than 50 countries.

The IAEA's activities in nutritional evaluations were initiated to apply isotope techniques for assessments of human body composition, nutrient intake, and vitamin and mineral bioavailability (the proportion of a nutrient that is absorbed and utilized) in developing countries. The majority of the work was done through the Department of Research and Isotopes through Co-ordinated Research Programmes.

Recently, the scope of the Agency's activities has expanded. There is a new emphasis in the Department of Technical Co-operation on isotopic techniques in human nutritional evaluations within the context of national development programmes (see Table). Some of these are being carried out in collaboration with other UN and donor organizations. Working in partnership with the IAEA, several Member States have already increased the awareness and utilization of isotope techniques to design and monitor programmes and evaluate their nutritional impact.

Goals of IAEA's nutrition activities:

Current IAEA scientific initiatives:

Alongside its targeted research projects, the IAEA:

Provides training and fellowships to personnel from developing Member States in the application of isotope techniques.

Publishes and disseminates technical papers and other documentation from scientific meetings and programmes (many of which are free of charge).

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