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Improving women’s diets to accelerate progress on the SDGs

Originally published on Thousand Days website, in occasion of the #Marchis4Nutrition campaign - March 2018

The Global Panel’s policy briefs already make the case for aligning food systems to deliver healthy diets. But why is this particularly important for girls and women? And how can good nutrition contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?

Women are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition in all its forms. On one hand, over half of young women and adolescent girls in a wide range of low- and middle-income countries are not meeting their micronutrient needs. Women typically eat a lower quantity and variety of nutritious foods than their male counterparts – even though, at specific stages in the lifecycle, women require more dietary iron than men and more proteins*. On the other hand, overweight and obesity rates are rising. In Egypt, for example, overweight and obesity affect 76% of all women over 15 (vs 64% of men*); and more than 1 in 5 women are overweight in Nigeria.

The Global Panel believes that addressing poor quality diets and malnutrition, particularly for women and girls, is critical to advancing progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (policy brief). To take a few of the global goals:

Improving access to healthy diets for women and girls will accelerate progress on SDG 1 (related to poverty reduction) and SDG8 (economic growth). Malnutrition fuels poverty. It is those with the least social, economic and political power who are most affected by malnutrition*. Ensuring high-quality diets for vulnerable groups, including women, will deliver several benefits, for example through gains in labour productivity and future earning potential. In terms of household income, each added centimetre of adult height is associated with almost 5% increase in wage rates*. Eliminating malnutrition in Africa and Asia would allow more women to enter the workforce, and could unlock the equivalent of 11% in lost GDP each year.

Investing in women’s nutrition will also promote health and well-being for women and their children (SDG 3), as well as boosting gender equality and good education (SDGs 4 and 5). Experiencing any form of malnutrition during pregnancy can have lasting repercussions on foetal and child development. Maternal protein restriction increases the risk of high blood pressure in childhood, and of cardiovascular disease later in life*. Poor female nutrition early in life impacts learning potential and increases maternal health risks. Malnourished women, as well as men, are more likely to be affected by non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, strokes, and type 2 diabetes whereas well-nourished girls experience better educational outcomes and the ability to delay early marriage and pregnancies*.To provide a fairer start to women, we must ensure they have access to nutritious and healthy diets, at all stages of life.

Three years into the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition, it is time to take concerted action to improve access to quality diets and nutrition for girls and women and to recognise the central role this plays in promoting economic and social development.