By Emily Glass, Alexandra Long, Melissa Talley and Julia Werth
Fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy – the five food groups. That’s nutrition 101 for every dietetic intern. Or so we thought…
Recently, four of us had the opportunity to attend a global maternal, infant, and young child nutrition (MIYCN) event held on April 30 in Washington, DC. Alive & Thrive (A&T) is an initiative to save lives, prevent illness, and ensure healthy growth and development through optimal maternal nutrition, breastfeeding, and complementary feeding practices. Over the course of the event, we learned that internationally there aren’t just five food groups studied; in fact, there are double that number.
Fruit, iron-rich vegetables, vitamin A-rich vegetables, other vegetables, cereals, dairy, fats, fish, nuts/seeds, and meat are the ten food groups generally used in A&T programs to monitor intake and outcomes related to nutrition policies and programs. This division makes it easier to compare the intakes of nations worldwide, many of which have larger populations of vegetarians and less access to certain fruits and vegetables than we do in the United States.
And the considerations and alterations made to best serve and address the needs of families globally don’t stop there. With every country and culture comes different social norms and traditions that may be different to here in the US.
Take fasting for instance. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) requires followers over age seven to fast for over 180 days a year, which includes abstaining from all animal source foods and consuming their first meal of the day after noon. Although children under seven are excused from participating, they still receive little to no food during fasting times. A&T has spent time evaluating the impact of fasting practices on young child diet quality and diversity and has worked with EOC religious leaders, mothers, and fathers, on the delivery of messages around child feeding during fasting periods.
Findings of these efforts have showed that mothers were willing to try adding animal source foods into their child’s diet, specifically eggs and milk, during the fasting season, if reassured that this would not break their own fast. Priests were willing to teach about proper child feeding practices during fasting, and work with health extension workers (HEWs) to reach the community as long as the instruction came from formal, authoritative religious channels.
As dietetic interns, we know the crucial role nutrition plays in growth and development of infants and young children. During this event, we had the opportunity to learn about how A&T uses an evidence-based approach in Ethiopia and other countries to improve infant and young child feeding practices. To say our experience at this conference was eye-opening would be an understatement. As future registered dietitian nutritionists, it is important for us to know not only what is happening with nutrition research and programs in the US, but also what is happening internationally. There is much to learn from these successful programs that we could adapt into our own public health practice. Throughout our time at the A&T event, we met and heard from extremely unique and talented individuals who were all there for the same purpose: to optimize maternal, infant, and young child nutrition for all women and their families.