Penn State faculty and UNICEF document the diets of African children

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Optimal nutrition is essential to children’s survival, growth, and development. Diet quality is most consequential for children under the age of two, and diet during this period is critical to prevent stunting in early childhood and other health problems throughout life. 

Though researchers report that child stunting has been on the decline in West and Central Africa, it is still a significant problem in the region where about 35% of children suffer from stunting. Recently, three researchers in Penn State’s Department of Nutritional Sciences completed an extensive research project on the scope of the problem and some potential explanations for the problems that persist.

UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, commissioned the report. UNICEF works in 190 nations around the world on issues related to child protection and development. UNICEF’s Western and Central African Region covers 24 countries. 

In collaboration with UNICEF, the Penn State researchers examined complementary feeding practices in West and Central Africa. The transition from exclusive breastfeeding to family foods – referred to as complementary feeding – typically covers the period from six to 23 months of age and is one of the most challenging times to meet children’s nutrient needs.

Prior research shows that inappropriate complementary feeding can lead to stunted growth, leaving young children vulnerable to common diseases like diarrhea and potential long-term consequences on brain development. This study showed that complimentary feeding practices have not improved in Central and West Africa over the past decade. 

Muzi Na, assistant professor of nutritional sciences and Broadhurst Career Development Professor for the Study of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, led the research team. Na explained that the researchers examined multiple factors that influence why people do or do not engage in complimentary feeding.

“Poverty or inconsistent access to an adequate amount of nutritious foods can influence why people do or do not engage in complimentary feeding,” Na said. “Other critical factors include policy commitment to promote child nutrition, access to health care and services, cultural norms, and household dynamics. Our findings demonstrate that we need a variety of solutions in order to address suboptimal feeding practices and child malnutrition.”

Stephen Kodish, assistant professor of biobehavioral health and nutritional sciences and Ann Atherton Hertzler Early Career Professor in Nutrition, and Laura Murray-Kolb, associate professor of nutritional sciences, also collaborated on the report.


Last Updated August 09, 2021