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Nuclear-Derived Techniques for a Quality Diet: IAEA Commemorates 11th Africa Day for Food and Nutrition Security


A saliva sampling is taken to assess body composition using a stable isotope technique. (Photo: V. Owino/IAEA)

Malnutrition manifests in various forms, from obesity and stunting to low weight for height, known as wasting. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that undernutrition caused by several factors, including suboptimal breastfeeding, inadequate intake of protein and essential micronutrients, causes 45 per cent of deaths annually among children under five, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.

In West and Central Africa, more than 15 million cases of acute malnutrition are expected in children under the age of five in 2020, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP). COVID-19 has led to disruptions in food production and distribution, making it more difficult for populations to maintain healthy diets. To help better understand how nutrients are absorbed, used or stored in the body, which can significantly improve children’s health, the IAEA is working with many countries in Africa, using nuclear and isotopic techniques to help inform programming and policy making.

“Food safety and security, as well as adequate nutrition, play a pivotal role in social economic development in Africa,” said Shaukat Abdulrazak, Director of the IAEA’s technical cooperation division for Africa. Speaking in a webinar on resilient food systems for healthy diets organized by the African Union Commission (AUC) to mark the 11th Africa Day for Food and Nutrition Security (ADFNS) on 30 October. “Nuclear techniques can be used to complement conventional methods in assessing the double burden of malnutrition,” he said, referring to situations where at least two or more forms of malnutrition coexist.

The ADFNS aims to highlight the centrality of food and nutrition security in Africa’s development agenda. The webinar featured speakers from the AUC, IAEA, WFP, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, as well as participants from government institutions, the private sector, academia and technical institutions.

The IAEA and the AUC signed their first agreement in 2018, providing a framework for cooperation to enhance sustainable development in the region. This includes the use of nuclear and nuclear derived techniques to boost food production, develop climate-smart agricultural practices, manage water supplies, enhance the safety of food and water, help improve child nutrition and combat malnutrition throughout life.

“In many cases of undernutrition, people are not consuming the right quality of food. [This] is linked to food security,” said Laila Lokosang, Advisor of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme of the AUC and focal point for ADFNS. “We tie the increased level of malnutrition we have seen in recent months to COVID-19 very strongly. We need to be more proactive than any other time before to work together to fight malnutrition in Africa.”

Use of stable isotopes to assess diet quality

Diet quality – the ability of food to provide adequate and readily bioavailable nutrients for bodily functions – is a determinant of nutritional status. The IAEA has developed a suite of isotopic and nuclear-related techniques to evaluate various dimensions of nutrition, including breastfeeding patterns, body composition and nutrient digestion and bioavailability. The data from these techniques can be used to develop nutritional interventions to improve children’s nutrition and health, enhance policy formulation, and strengthen countries’ capacity to meet their development goals.

“Designing effective interventions to assess the complex relation between infections, changing food systems and nutrition and health outcomes requires that we have accurate and precise tools to generate the needed evidence base,” said Victor Owino, nutrition specialist at the IAEA's Division of Human Health. “Stable isotope techniques can help to accurately and non-invasively measure diet quality and related nutritional indicators toward Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2063 targets.” Agenda 2063 is the African Union’s strategic framework for inclusive and sustainable development.  

One of these methods is the deuterium dilution technique, based on water molecules that include the deuterium isotope of hydrogen (2H2O). When these labelled water molecules are swallowed by the participants, they will mix with body water. Their concentration is then measured in the participants’ urine or saliva samples, allowing experts to calculate their total amount of fat free mass, based on which they can estimate their fat mass and check it against established ranges for healthy fat-fat free ratio for their age group.   

Though stable isotope applications have been utilized in many countries, wider adoption across Africa is challenged by high costs and the need for trained staff. “Use of technology, like the stable isotope tools developed by the IAEA, is pioneering and its use should be further scaled up in Africa,” Lokosang said. “This kind of technology provides immediate results, and this data is valuable, not only for decision makers but for the person being measured to be advised right away in terms of habits and consumption.”

The IAEA encourages the use of isotope techniques to accurately measure indicators associated with the double burden of malnutrition. It offers support to countries through technical cooperation and coordinated research projects to enhance research and development on isotope techniques, and to build capacity for the adoption and use of these techniques to design and evaluate interventions. IAEA support includes training, expert advice, provision of equipment, sample analysis, data management, and analysis to enable the results to be interpreted and used by nutritionists and health professionals.

Read more how the IAEA is addressing childhood obesity with the help of nuclear technology.

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