Cuba´s Nutrition Mission

Havana -- Dr. Manuel Hernandez-Triana is a man on a mission, striving to help Cubans live longer and healthier lives. He´s fortunately in good company.

Cuba´s longstanding emphasis on health care, he says, surrounds him with people looking to build on a pretty strong record. Rankings for just two measures – the rates for life expectancy and infant mortality – place the developing country among far richer nations. Cubans can expect to reach 76, rivaling Sweden´s 80, and fewer babies are lost at birth than in most neighboring countries, including the United States.

"We´re a poor country facing rich country problems when it comes to health," says Dr. Santa Jimenez, Dr. Hernandez-Triana´s boss and Vice-Director of Nutrition at Cuba´s Institute of Nutrition and Food Hygiene in Havana. Problems related to nutrition – including obesity, hypertension, and diabetes – are commanding increasing attention, she notes.

Over the past several years, Cuba has learned more about the connections between nutrition and health. Through IAEA projects, the country´s researchers are using sensitive techniques, including isotopes (forms of chemical elements such as oxygen and hydrogen) and nuclear analytical techniques to track and evaluate the body´s energy expenditure in children and adults, including the elderly, as part of overall nutrition studies.

As head of the Institute´s biochemistry and physiology arm, Dr. Hernandez-Triana knows the work can pay big dividends. Together with project partners, Cuba already is gaining key analytical support for its subsidized feeding programme. It provides daily food baskets of fortified milk, fruit puree, and other foods to more than 1.7 million children, including nearly 150,000 pre-schoolers.

Several field studies – involving counterparts at Cuba´s ministries of education and health, and the atomic energy commission – are adding to the knowledge base.

Studies of preschool children, for example, show that those living in the country expend far more energy than youngsters in cities because they´re more physically active. "It´s an important finding," says Dr. Hernandez-Triana. "Cuba´s feeding programme is more geared toward supplementing the diets of highly active children. We now know adjustments are needed for less active city children, to prevent problems of overweight and obesity. We already see the tendency."

(Credit: Studies of the elderly in urban and rural settings also detect trouble spots, with one in five men and about half of all women found to be overweight. Excess weight is a leading factor in diet-related chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes, which stand among Cuba´s major health problems. Nutrition programmes are being directed accordingly as part of preventive efforts, particularly targeting children in time to reverse course. Worldwide, obesity trends are alarming, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports, with an estimated 300 million adults now considered clinically obese, about a third of them in developing countries.

Cuba´s results are critical to the success of school nutrition programmes in which it invests more than $80 million annually. The data are contributing to reviews of national policies and - for the first time - to set baseline nutritional guidelines tailored to local conditions and needs. The results of the children field studies also are being used by the Expert Committee of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), WHO, and United Nations University to set new recommended standards for the region.

"The big contribution of the IAEA projects is that we're obtaining the concrete data we need," says Dr. Hernandez-Triana, "so we can decide on changes helping our own people live longer and healthier lives."

Last update: 11 November 2014