Department of Nutrition director discusses methods to combat malnutrition


Shweta Gulati

Lindsay Allen, director of the Department of Nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, gives a talk on the importance of micronutrients in diet Friday afternoon. 

Natalie Sullivan

Although efforts to decrease malnutrition for women and children in developing countries, as well as in the U.S., have shown improvement in recent years, researchers still need to develop better solutions, according to Lindsay Allen, director of the Department of Nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In a lecture Friday, Allen said a deficiency of specific micronutrients, such as iron or folic acid, can have devastating effects on children and their mothers, especially during the prenatal period.

“If mothers don’t get the right nutritional care during pregnancy, it can lead to low birth weight, delayed growth and higher mortality for the child,” Allen said.

Allen said providing women and children with supplements containing micronutrients can sometimes alleviate these problems but said more research needs to be done.

“Micronutrient interventions have a significant positive impact on morbidity, mortality, and health of women and children, but information gaps still remain,” Allen said. “Miracle foods,” such as rice genetically enhanced with Vitamin A or LNS, a peanut-based spread packed with micronutrients, have long been touted by researchers as cures for malnutrition in developing countries, according to Allen. She said these products can provide short-term benefits but still don’t solve underlying nutrient deficits.

“When we look at the data, we see that [these interventions] have only a tiny effect on growth,” Allen said.

Nutrition professor Michele Forman said more research is needed to determine precise values for micronutrient needs, especially in children.

“Dietary reference intakes for kids are a mess,” Forman said. “The guidelines for how many nutrients we need per day are out there, but they’re based on crude approximations.”

According to Allen, vegetarian diets also don’t provide an adequate amount of micronutrients. To meet dietary needs, Allen suggested kids and parents should eat more animal- source products.

“Eating foods like meat, milk and eggs will increase size, birth weight and school performance [for kids],” Allen said.