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What malnutrition does to Filipino school kids


Sunday, June 11, 2006



By The Manila Times Research staff

MILLIONS of Filipino children go to school without proper or enough nutrients and energy to help them through the day. Getting through the work and learning of a day in school can be fun for a well-fed pupil. It is usually painful for a malnourished child.

Of every 100 primary school-age children, 26 were underweight and 37 were underheight or short, the latest nutrition survey (2003) done by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) of the Department of Science and Technology.

“Being underheight or short reflects current malnutrition or a long-standing poor nutritional status,” the research institute said.

This was an improvement over the finding that 33 out of every 100 were underweight and 41 out of every 100 were underheight in 2001.

Being underweight means a child’s weight relative to her/his age is less than that of a normal child and being underheight or short means his/her height is less than that of a normal child of the same age. On the other hand, being overweight—which is another sign of malnutrition—is when a child’s weight is much more than that of a normal child of the same age.

The 1998 National Nutrition Survey conducted by FNRI-DOST saw four malnutrition problems of Filipino children—protein-energy malnutrition, iron deficiency anemia, vitamin A deficiency and iodine deficiency disorders.

Dr. Ma. Veritas Fajos-Luna, chairman and associate professor of the Department of Food and Nutrition at the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD), explained that being protein-energy malnourished means that the children do not have enough calories to burn, especially for physical and mental activities.

“The truth here is that Filipinos consume more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance for protein but it’s the calories that we are lacking,” Fojas-Luna said. She says calories from carbohydrates are the main sources of energy.

Based on the dietary survey done every five years by FNRI, only protein meets the corresponding recommended daily allowance (RDA) at 106.2 percent while energy is 87.8 percent of RDA, and intakes of vitamins and minerals remain “grossly inadequate,” which ranges from 57.1 percent to 88.1 percent.

“However, since we lack enough calories to burn, our body turns to the proteins that we consume as its source of energy,” Fojas-Luna said. Because most of the proteins are burnt by the body for energy, the nutrient is not able to do its main function of building and rebuilding muscles and tissues.

“This is why malnourished children are stunted and thin,” she said. “They do not build muscles and bones to grow tall and strong,” she said.

Since the body’s proteins are depleted to create of energy, children also cannot fight infection and combat diseases, which is also one function of proteins. Proteins are what keep the immune system healthy. “These children easily get sick. They are often absent from school. They do not perform well in mental and physical activities,” Fojas-Luna said.

Filipinos have low mineral intake, as the dietary survey shows, and because of this many children are afflicted with iron deficiency anemia. According to Fojas-Luna, iron helps in manufacturing red blood cells that bring oxygen to all parts of the body.

“If a child has low red blood cell count, he or she easily gets tired, has no interest in learning or class activities owing to his feeling of fatigue. And he or she cannot concentrate on lectures,” the nutrition professor said.

Iodine deficiency affects the thyroid gland. Iodine is needed to produce hormones needed by the body for various functions. Since the thyroid becomes hyperactive when it tries to capture even minute amounts of iodine in the body, it becomes enlarged. That is goiter, Fojas-Luna said.

Children of iodine-deficient mothers may become retarded, deaf-mute or suffer from “cretinism” (mental and physical undevelopment). Children with low iodine counts, the nutrition professor said, may become mentally slow.

Vitamin A is needed to produce mucous in the membranes of different organs of the body. “We get the sniffles when we have allergens inside the body. We cough or sneeze it out to get the alien entity like dust out of our system. We are able to do that because of the mucous that traps allergens. Mucous is manufactured by our bodies with the help of Vitamin A,” Fojas Luna said.

Without the ability to expel allergens, says the professor, the processes inside the body are hampered. And this makes children sick.

Without Vitamin A, the eyes also dry out, which leads to eye injuries. “Dry eyes cannot expel dust and other objects that get inside,” she said. Chronic dryness of the eyes can eventually lead to blindness.

Vitamin A is also responsible for binding proteins in the retina of the eye which enables people to adjust to darkness. Vitamin A deficiency causes night blindness. “Vitamin A-deficient children become withdrawn at dusk because they cannot see very well in the dark. They reduce their physical activity when it gets dark,” Fojas Luna said.

Malnutrition is debilitating to schoolchildren. FNRI urges that health and nutrition programs and interventions be intensified. It warns, however, that programs on health and nutrition would go nowhere if the root cause of the problem is not addressed.

“There is the greater need for programs and projects that will raise the economic condition of the majority of the Filipino people as malnutrition is associated mainly with poverty. If all the young Filipinos are to attain their greatest potential physically and mentally, the government must not ignore the malnutrition of about one-fourth to one-third of the children,” FNRI said.

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