Nutritionists raised concerns about the prevalence of wasting, low weight for height, being quite high and in fact too much for a middle income country, with approximately 500,000 children island-wide being affected, primarily due to bad food habits and the lack of a nutritious, balanced diet.
As per the 2016 Global Nutrition Report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute, low weight for height is prevalent amongst 21.4% of the population in Sri Lanka. The country is ranked as the third highest, coming in at the 128th position out of the 130 countries that have been ranked.
Relevant health experts called on the policymakers to seriously consider addressing the issue of the escalating prices of food, especially vegetables, fruits and fish.
Wasting is extremely high in the Districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampara, Badulla, Monaragala, Polonnaruwa and Kandy (tea estates and rural areas). Official statistics as of 2012 based on the National Nutrition and Micronutrient Survey conducted by the Medical Research Institute reveal that the figure for the same is 400,000 (from 11.7% in 2009 to 19.6% in 2012).
In measuring the nutrition standard and status of preschoolers which in turn is used as a measurement of the status of nutrition in the country, involves the use of three indicators for the purpose of measuring the different nutrition levels and statuses of children under the age of five years.
One indicator is whether the child has achieved the adequate height for the given age. If the height is lower, this is indicative of stunting or what is known as shortness. This is the result of long term nutrition consumption being affected and may even be from the gestational period onwards or from the first or second year following birth.
Another indicator is whether the child has achieved the proper weight for the given age. If the weight is lower, this is indicative of being underweight. This is the result of long term or short term nutrition consumption being affected and may even be from the gestational period onwards or from early childhood or soon after birth. Not being breastfed or not having solid food to eat factors in.
Still another indicator is whether the child has achieved the proper weight for the given height. If the weight is lower, this is indicative of wasting. Theoretically, the reasons for this could be in the recent past including during the last couple of months or years (one or two) in terms of the child’s nutrition consumption. It could be due to an illness which makes it unable for the child to eat properly.
Or it could be that the child is not getting enough nutritious food, especially proteins, vitamins and minerals and may be consuming cheap food that has less nutrition.
Children affected by wasting also suffer from anemia (iron deficiency), vitamin A and zinc, which are major nutrients, deficiencies.
Meanwhile, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Applied Nutrition of the Faculty of Livestock, Fisheries and Nutrition of the Wayamba University, Dr. Renuka Silva further added that two probable reasons had been suggested by nutrition experts with regard to as to why wasting had suddenly increased at a time when stunting and being underweight were at a lower level.
The actual problem could be that the children are not given good, nutritious food by their parents while the other reason which is also a position put forward by the Government health authorities could be that this is a transition that is taking place when a country is developing, from stunting and being underweight going down to wasting increasing, he explained.
Regarding the former, the problem of not having a nutritious balanced diet and having bad food habits (consumption of biscuits, snacks, sugary beverages, etc) is prevalent not only in the cities and urban areas but also in the rural areas, he noted, adding further that if children continued on with such bad diets, their cognitive, brain development would be adversely impacted in turn adversely affecting their education in terms of understanding and learning. The latter would result in eventual adults who are unable to serve the country or contribute to the economy.
Although there are a lot of problems at the ground level and grassroots level, there is no mechanism to address such, he noted, adding that since the public health midwives could not handle the matter, nutritionists should be trained and sent to the field to correct bad food habits. This problem cannot be dealt with solely by traditional means of short term measures (for an example, though Thriposha is given, it is shared by all those at home) and long term solutions. There must be targeted programmes providing special treatment.
“Compared with other standard populations including in Asian countries, including in middle income earning countries, the prevalence of wasting in Sri Lanka is too high, too much. Government authorities and nutritionists are worried. The prices of nutritious food are high. Poorer families therefore make do with rice and a few other food items,” he said.
“These do not provide adequate nutrition. There is less meat in the diet and good quality food containing proteins. Even in rural areas, children are not hungry because they have eaten junk. The evidence and our experience prove that this is a problematic situation. This is prevalent among a lot of poor people. In rural areas, the population affected is 15% to 20%. Poverty is the main reason. There is no decreasing trend. This is a serious matter,” he emphasized.