Nutrition Increases Productivity and Prevents Many Birth Defects During Reproductive Years

Ages 15 to 49 years are considered reproductive years. For both men and women this age, proper nutrition is essential for physical productivity. In addition, women especially need folic acid to reduce the risk of brain and spine birth defects.

Nutritional Needs

Both men and women need iron, riboflavin, folic acid, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin B12 to prevent specific types of anemia. Zinc and vitamin A also strengthen immune systems. Riboflavin helps with metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Vitamin B12 maintains functions of the brain and nervous system.

In addition, women need 400 micrograms of folic acid daily before conception and 28 days after conception to reduce the risk of the infant having a severe birth defect of the brain or spine.

Consequences of Deficiencies

People who have had anemia say it causes debilitating fatigue. Iron deficiency – a common cause of anemia - is estimated to contribute to 17% lower productivity in heavy manual labor and 5% lower productivity in other manual labor.

Adequate folic acid intake can prevent most severe brain and spine birth defects, namely spina bifida, anencephaly, and cephalocele.

Extent of the Problem

  • Anemia affects an estimated 496.3 million non-pregnant women and 32.4 million pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 49 years. Iron deficiency causes about half the anemia among women globally, though this varies by region.
  • About 230,000 brain and spine birth defects could be prevented every year if women had adequate intake of folic acid before and immediately after conception.
Of the non-pregnant women with anemia, about half of the cases (248.15 million) are related to iron deficiency. Imagine 248.15 million women standing head to toe. If the women were each 1.65 meters tall (5.41 feet), they would extend enough to reach the moon and circle it.

Benefits of Fortification

A review of anemia data from 12 countries that fortified flour and 20 countries that did not showed a 2.4% yearly decrease in anemia in countries that did fortify. The countries that did not fortify flour showed no reduction in anemia prevalence over time.

Women who are not planning a pregnancy are likely not taking folic acid supplements, and most people do not consume the equivalent of 400 micrograms of folic acid from unfortified food. In contrast, women who regularly consume foods fortified with folic acid increase their intake of this essential nutrient and are less likely to have an infant with a brain or spine birth defect.

Food fortification is listed as a "relevant intervention" in this list of six key actions to reduce anemia. UNICEF also recommends mass fortifcation as one strategy to prevent vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Sustainable Development Goals

Nutrition during the reproductive years addresses several Sustainable Development Goals.

  • Increased productivity helps lower poverty (goal 1) and contributes to economic growth (goal 8).
  • Improved nutrition contributes to zero hunger (goal 2) and good health and well-being (goal 3).
  • Since women are more prone to anemia than men, reducing the prevalence of anemia is a step toward gender equality (goal 5)

Top Photo Credit: @Flickr Creative Commons