Sunday, September 6, 2009

Nica Nutrition

My nutrition education goals in brief.
Living in Nicaragua presents an extra challenge to someone who studied nutrition and food science.  Nutrition education, just like in countries all over the world, is needed here to help public health...especially with increasing access to highly processed, less traditional foods.  It seems that the often poor dietary habits are deeply rooted in the socioeconomic situation (as we certainly also observe in the United States).  UNICEF reports that "one of every three children has some degree of chronic malnutrition and nine percent suffer from severe malnutrition."  In addition, daily rural life includes very few precautions taken with regards to food and water safety.  Food access / food security appear far more of a concern than sanitation and variety.  On the bright side, unlike the U.S., in rural Nicaragua there is an abundance of tropical fruits and a high tendency to cook at home; two strong dietary advantages in my opinion.

As I begin my service here I have set a goal to encourage some simple adjustments to the diet.  I´m optimistic!  In the first two weeks I have had positive feedback from some soy meat I have prepared.  My host family has also observed how I cook my dinner with much less oil (for frying an egg for example).  And just last night two young girls were excited to learn a quick salsa recipe--tomato, onion, green mango, chicoria/cilantro, salt--a healthful addition to their diet with ingredients that are often available in the area (chicoria typically grows right around the house).  I try to pass the message that fruits and veggies have vitamins!  It is more economical to buy fruits and veggies from the family than to buy some questionable vitamin tablet.  And frying with less oil also saves a bit of dinero.

I have observed that a lack of health and nutrition education allows food superstitions to continue, hindering the ability of families to make healthy dietary choices.  I respect the traditions here and the beliefs that often seem strange to me, but opening up to some new health beliefs may be a positive change for some individuals.  I have observed (and tried to gently dissuade) sippy cup feeding of cola followed by a bon-bon lollipop given to a child not yet old enough to walk OR ask for said lollypop (seemingly used as a pacifier...).  Not only do such empty calories not provide recommended nutrition, such practices may prime the child´s preference for abundant processed sweets.  More processed food, less traditional products, and inevitably more dental problems often result.

After four months observing and eating in Nicaragua, I have decided to encourage four changes in the kitchen.  I would argue that these goals are simple and also relevant for healthy eating in any culture.

1. Diversify by adding fresh (not always over cooked) color to the plate (this means fruits and vegetables)
2. Reduce sugar intake, especially in liquid Calories.  Perhaps replace the cola with H2O; make a fruit juice fresco with out--or with less--added sugar!  (Another quick anecdote:  there is a popular cola here named Kola Shaler, which some people believe to be different from soda (gaseosa).  It is believed to be somewhat medicinal and a source of vitamins; however, reality and ingredient label tell me it is a cola with a slightly different flavoring recipe.)
3. Reduce consumption of fried foods and fry in less fat.  Not only would this save money (aceite, oil, is expensive), it may add color to the golden brown plate.  *The same child who loves cola and lollipops is typically fed mostly fried solid foods.  One day at the table, as I ate a healthy avocado, I suggested trying to feed a bit to the child.  The response was bewilderment--apparently the belief is that the avocado does a young person harm (at least in this family).  To them, fried rice and fried cheese are easier to digest than a bit of avocado.*
4. Lastly, a reduction in cross contamination during food prep and water collection could benefit everyone! 

I am just getting started encouraging these four ideas and I am planning some cooking demonstrations in my community.  The community and I are also beginning some small scale patio garden plots that may increase food security and diversify diets (Peace Corps objectives!), even if only by a small amount.

Opportunities in Jigüina are abundant!

I would like to note that I do not intend to be judgmental about the diet here.  I indulge in sweets and fried foods as well.  But, I like to think I do so in moderation and I live a somewhat active lifestyle.  With out some critical observation, it is hard to accomplish dietary improvement.  I respect the hard working people here that often struggle to put food on the table and I also respect the continued use of traditional recipes (with maíz for example).

Peace and Progress

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