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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Program tackles 'hidden hunger' in Cambodia

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun

University of B.C. researchers are spearheading a unique program aimed at ending chronic malnutrition among women and children in rural Cambodia.

Rural Cambodians tend to get around 80 per cent of their calories from rice, which is widely grown as a cash crop, explained Judy McLean of UBC's faculty of land and food systems, who is leading the study with colleague Tim Green.

This over-reliance on rice has meant people don't get enough animal protein and nutrient-rich vegetables, which are key sources of vitamins and minerals, McLean said. These deficiencies, particularly common in women and children, can result in anemia and make children less resistant to potentially fatal respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses. Such deficiencies also reduce children's ability to learn, she said.

"You're more likely to get sick and [the illness] will be more intense ... and of longer duration."

Nutrient deficiencies are sometimes referred to as "hidden hunger" because the people are not starving, but lacking in high-quality food, McLean said. "It's not that acute sort of 'TV' hunger we talk about. It's ... this ongoing deficient diet."

To combat the problem, the UBC researchers are teaming up with the non-profit Helen Keller International to measure the impact of creating fish ponds and home gardens, where families can grow nutrient-rich vegetables such as sweet potatoes.

The study involves 900 households, many headed by women, randomly divided into three groups: one that will grow high-nutrient fruits and vegetables, one that will have fish ponds and a control group.

Fish are an excellent source of protein, iron, essential fatty acids and nutrients. McLean said she expects the ponds to be especially beneficial because local residents consume the smaller fish whole.

"By doing so, you get more of the vitamins and minerals that are in ... the internal organs, in the eyes, in the livers, in their skeletons."

The UBC team will take blood samples from participants before and after the study, which is expected to last 30 months and cost $2.9 million. The bulk of the cost will be drawing the blood and shipping it to Canada and Germany, where researchers will measure the nutrient levels, McLean said. This is what makes the work unique, she added.

"We want to be able to go out at the end of this and inform the food security and nutrition community in the world whether or not this works," she said. "So much money has been thrown at things without that answer, without a rigorous design."

The study will be funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre and the Canadian government. The team is also working closely with Cambodian government officials, who will be in a position to continue the projects if they prove beneficial, McLean said.

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