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IAEA Joins Forces with WHO and UNICEF to Tackle the Double Burden of Malnutrition

Vienna, Austria

Thai school children enjoying lunch that includes rice fortified with vitamin A, iron and zinc. Nuclear techniques can be used to asses diet quality, and the proportion of nutrients consumed and absorbed. (Photo: IAEA)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are holding a joint workshop this week to explore, among other topics, the role of nuclear techniques in addressing the double burden of malnutrition – where undernutrition coexists with obesity or diet-related non-communicable diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular conditions.

Hosted by the IAEA, the first such meeting organized by the three international organizations brings together around 50 researchers and public health professionals working in nutrition and non-communicable diseases from 30 countries.

They are discussing the magnitude of the problem, the biology underlying the double burden of malnutrition and actions to address it, as well as ways to measure malnutrition and the impact of interventions. Participants aim to identify research gaps and make recommendations for actions for nutrition research, policy and programmes worldwide.

“In order to effectively tackle the double burden of malnutrition, clear, evidence-based actions that address both undernutrition, and overweight and obesity – so called double-duty actions – are needed,” said Cornelia Loechl, head of the Nutritional and Health-Related Environmental Studies Section at the IAEA. “Stable isotope techniques can help Member States develop and evaluate these actions.”

Isotopic techniques are established tools to study diet quality and the body’s processing of important nutrients. They can be used to assess, for example, breastfeeding patterns, body composition and energy expenditure. This information can help policymakers in planning more effective interventions.

“We are very pleased to co-organize this workshop,” WHO’s Director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, Francesco Branca, said at the meeting. “We have this new reality, particularly in low- and middle- income countries, where we have combined undernutrition, overweight and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. These conditions share common causes, so this meeting will help us to understand the issue better and to identify suitable common solutions.”

Economic growth, urbanization and significant shifts in diet quality and quantity have led to an epidemic growth of diet-related diseases around the world. According to the WHO, 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese, while 462 million are underweight.

Children under 5 years of age are particularly vulnerable to the effects of a poor diet: 155 million are too short for their age, 52 million are too thin for their height and 41 million are overweight, according to the latest estimates by UNICEF, WHO and the World Bank Group. “The double burden of malnutrition undermines children’s ability to develop their full potential even further,” said Victor Aguayo, Director for Nutrition at UNICEF.

The IAEA helps its Member States use nuclear and isotopic techniques to improve nutrition throughout a person’s life course, from measuring exclusive breastfeeding in infants to nutrient uptake and body composition in different age groups to bone density, muscle mass and physical activity in the elderly.  

In Chile, for example, the Agency helped the country use isotopic techniques to collect information that served as a basis for policy decisions on pre-school feeding programmes and the promotion of physical activity in day care centres. As a result, Chile managed to successfully halt the rise in obesity in pre-school children.

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