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Addressing Maternal Undernutrition: A Critical Issue Affecting Women's Health

According to Rebecca Milner, "If you check the health of a woman, you check the health of society." Globally, undernutrition is a major health concern that affects the overall health of pregnant women and adolescent girls.



Indian mother is feeding her baby on her lap in a rural background. Credit: Abir Bhattacharya/ Shutterstock



1. Overview of #Undernutrition:


Undernutrition refers to less-than-standard levels of macro and micronutrients that are stored in the body and consumed through the diet.


#Macronutrients refer to nutrients that are required in large amounts for proper growth and functioning of the body. They play a major role in providing energy and maintaining the body’s structure. The major macronutrients are:

· Carbohydrates

· Proteins

· Fats

· Water

· Fibre

One of the most prevalent forms of undernutrition is the deficit of energy and protein.


#Micronutrients refer to nutrients that are required in smaller amounts for proper growth and functioning of the body. They play a major role in secreting hormones and enzymes. The major micronutrients are:

· Vitamins

· Minerals

There are 13 major vitamins required by the body, which are vitamins A, C, D, E, K and B vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, niacin, biotin, folate, B6 and B12. Calcium, phosphorus, iron and zinc are some of the main minerals required by our body.


2. Prevalence of undernutrition in pregnant women:


One of the most prevalent forms of undernutrition is the deficit of energy and protein. Globally, 29.9% of women of reproductive age (15-49) are anemic due to iron deficiency, according to WHO reports. Pregnant women have a higher vulnerability to anemia due to the increased demand for iron required to support the growth of the placenta and fetus, as well as the increase in blood volume during pregnancy.


The occurrence of anemia is higher among pregnant women, with the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) conducted in 2019-21, reporting that the prevalence of anemia among pregnant women in urban areas is at 45.7% and in rural areas is at 54.3%. Undernutrition in pregnancy often leads to preterm birth, morbidity, other neonatal complications, and #maternal death.


3. Implications of undernutrition of Adolescent girls:


Adolescent girls are also more likely to suffer from undernourishment due to major factors such as poverty, inaccessibility to healthy foods, and lack of knowledge of nutrition. Adolescent girls are more probable to give birth to low-weight babies, as their growth is still not complete, and their body utilizes the nutrition for both their individual growth and fetal growth.


4. Major effects of maternal undernutrition on the child:


Pregnant women who are undernourished are more likely to give birth to low-weight and low-height babies. Undernourishment during pregnancy has serious consequences on the child, such as stunting, wasting and foetal growth restriction (FGR).

· #Stunting refers to non-attainment of the required height for age

· #Wasting refers to a deficiency in weight for corresponding height

· #FoetalGrowthRestriction (#FGR) refers to a condition that causes a foetus to not

reach its normal weight in the womb


Reports of the NFHS-5 (2019-2021) in India reveal that 35.5% of children under the age of five years are stunted, 19.3% of children under the age of five years are wasted, while 32.1% of children under age five years are underweight. Over 85% of stunted children around the world are native to Africa and Asia.

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5. Intergenerational cycle:


Growth deficiencies in babies gradually result in stunted height and low weight during their teenage years and adulthood. A short-statured woman is more likely to give birth to a growth-restricted and stunted baby, perpetuating the cycle further. Furthermore, early pregnancy in teenage girls who are underweight and stunted often leads to childbirth complications, such as hindered labour, excessive bleeding, uterine infections, other infections such as flu and birth of Small for Gestational Age (SGA) babies.

· Small for gestational age (#SGA) refers to a birth weight of less than 10% of gestational age.

Around 6 billion Small Gestational Age (SGA) births, globally are associated with women of short stature.


UNICEF’s recent findings reveal “Poor nutrition is passed down through generations: about half of children under 2 with stunting become stunted during pregnancy and the first six months of life”.


Thus, #Undernutrition is a major health concern that affects women's health, particularly pregnant women and adolescent girls. The prevalence of undernutrition among women has a severe impact not only on their health but also on the health of their children.


The impact of maternal undernutrition on society is significant, and preventive measures must be taken to improve the overall health and wellbeing of society. Thus, addressing maternal undernutrition is a vital step towards building a healthy society, as it not only impacts women's health but also the health of their children and future generations. Governments, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders must work together to implement comprehensive and sustainable

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