Nutrition is fundamental to human health, playing a vital role in physical growth, cognitive development, and overall well-being. In Pakistan, with a population exceeding 220 million, ensuring proper nutrition is a complex challenge. A well-fed population leads to a productive workforce, reduced healthcare burden, and an improved quality of life. But, neglecting nutrition results in adverse consequences that hinder progress.
For over a decade, Pakistan has been facing alarming levels of malnutrition, especially among women and children.
Dn. Tooba Bint e Zafar, BSc. (Hons.) Human Nutrition and Dietetics, SIGNS Regional Coordinator
The situation in Pakistan is quite dire, with stunting and wasting heavily prevalent in the country. There is a widespread problem of micronutrient deficiencies, affecting about half of children under five and leading to anemia and vitamin A deficiency among women, adolescent girls, and pregnant women. Additionally, iron, zinc, and calcium deficiencies are strikingly high in all population groups.
Dr. Fatima Qureshi, Maternal and Child Health Specialist
According to the UNICEF Pakistan report, among children under five years old, about 40% experience stunted growth. 18% suffer from wasting, and up to 14% of women and adolescent girls are underweight. Surprisingly, 7% of women are overweight or obese.
In Pakistan, nutrition deficiencies present a significant public health challenge, affecting a large portion of the population. While some progress has been made, addressing the issues of access to nutritious food and raising awareness about proper nutrition remains crucial.
Here are valuable insights into the prevalent nutrition deficiencies in Pakistan, supported by relevant statistics and data.
Iron Deficiency Anemia is one of the most common problems in the country. About 50% of Pakistani women and children suffer from anemia, which greatly affects their health. This high prevalence is due to a lack of iron-rich foods, not eating enough fruits and vegetables, and having limited variety in their diets.
Vitamin D deficiency is a concerning problem, especially in cities. Surprisingly, despite plenty of sunlight, many people have low vitamin D levels. Nearly 70% of Pakistanis suffer from not enough vitamin D, partly because of cultural practices that limit sun exposure and not eating enough vitamin D-rich foods.
Iodine deficiency remains a concern in various regions of Pakistan, putting pregnant women and children at serious health risks. Shockingly, about 35% of households in the country do not use iodized salt, increasing the risk of iodine deficiency disorders.
Dn Neroz Fatima, BS Human Nutrition and Dietetics, Hussain lakhani International Hospital
Vitamin A Deficiency continues to be a concern, particularly in rural areas. It is estimated that nearly 40% of children under the age of five suffer from inadequate vitamin A levels. Insufficient intake of green leafy vegetables, fruits, and animal products further contributes to this deficiency.
Zinc Deficiency is a critical issue that often goes unnoticed. More than 35% of children and 25% of women in Pakistan are affected by this deficiency. Inadequate consumption of zinc-rich foods, such as meat, legumes, and nuts, contributes to the problem.
Protein-Energy Malnutrition has become a double burden for Pakistan, encompassing both undernutrition and overnutrition (obesity). Approximately 40% of children under five are stunted, with around 17% suffering from wasting, while 9% are overweight or obese.
The widespread nutrition deficiencies in Pakistan are concerning for the health and well-being of the population. Solving these challenges requires united efforts from policymakers, healthcare professionals, and the community.
Dr. Ali Hassan, Public Health Consultant.
National health policies and initiatives play a crucial role in improving the well-being of Pakistan's population and addressing nutrition deficiencies. The government has taken proactive measures to combat malnutrition and enhance access to nutritious food.
Here are a few highlights of key policies and programs focused on tackling nutrient deficiencies and promoting better health across the country.
1) National Food Fortification Strategy
This strategy makes it mandatory to add essential nutrients like iron, zinc, vitamin A, and folic acid to common foods such as wheat flour, edible oil, and salt. By doing this, the government aims to reach more people and fight nutrition deficiencies.
2) The Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI)
EPI not only prevents communicable diseases but also helps address nutrition deficiencies. The government provides important vaccinations to children through this program, including vitamin A supplementation.
By incorporating these essential supplements into routine vaccinations, the initiative ensures that children get the necessary nutrients for their growth and development.
3) The National Maternal and Child Nutrition Program
It aims to improve the nutritional status of pregnant women, lactating mothers, and children under five years old.
This initiative provides targeted nutrition interventions, including micronutrient supplementation, to help this vulnerable population.
Additionally, it promotes breastfeeding practices and educates mothers about proper nutrition for themselves and their children.
4) School Nutrition Programs
School Nutrition Programs aim to provide nutritious meals to students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
These programs ensure that children have access to healthy meals during school hours, leading to improved cognitive abilities, academic performance, and overall health.
5) The Benazir Income Support Program (BISP)
BISP is a social safety net initiative that offers financial assistance to low-income families in Pakistan. As part of its broader goals, BISP includes nutrition-specific measures. Eligible families receive cash transfers with certain conditions, such as regular health check-ups and child immunizations, indirectly addressing nutrition deficiencies.
Significant progress can be made by:
Implementing effective interventions
Fostering a culture of proper nutrition for a healthier future.
Dn Farah Jabeen, Pak Emirates Military Hospital Rawalpindi.
In addition, there are other important policies like the National Nutrition Policy, the National Action Plan for Nutrition, and the National Micronutrient Strategy. Various programs, such as the Universal Salt Iodization Project, National Zero Hunger Program, and Nutrition Program in provinces like Sindh and Balochistan, play a crucial role in combating malnutrition.
The government runs nutrition education and awareness campaigns to promote healthy eating habits and raise awareness about proper nutrition.
These campaigns target both urban and rural communities, stressing the importance of a balanced diet and the consequences of malnutrition.
By further enhancing and extending these efforts, the government of Pakistan can take significant steps towards eradicating malnutrition, improving the health and well-being of its citizens, and creating a brighter and healthier future for the nation.