Good early nutrition can make you richer

Eating nutritious food at an early age will not only ensure a source of income as an adult but also better pay, according to a study published in the current issue of The Lancet, a leading British medical journal.

The study, conducted in four villages in Guatemala, found that boys who received atole, a gruel made of skimmed milk powder, sugar and vegetable protein, in the first two years of life earned on average 46 percent higher wages as adults, while boys who received atole in their first three years earned 37 percent higher wages on average. Those who first received the supplement after age three did not gain any economic benefits as adults.

Children and infants aged under seven in two of the villages were given atole, while those in other two settlements were given a placebo drink until 1977.

The research is the first to show direct evidence of the effects of early childhood nutrition programmes on adult economic productivity and incomes, said John Hoddinott, lead author of The Lancet's article and a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Until the Guatemala study, "substantial, but indirect, evidence from previous research suggested that providing infants and very young children with healthy, nutritious food is a long-term economic investment for developing countries," he told IRIN.

''The findings provide a strong argument for countries in Africa and Asia to increase investment in child nutrition programmes as they drive long-term economic growth by leading to healthier and more productive adults''

Questions on earnings, type of work and production levels helped researchers calculate the annual earned income based on hours worked and wage rates for each adult. They found exposure to atole before, but not after the age of three was associated with higher hourly wages, but only for men. Exposure to atole up to the age of two led to an increase of US$0·67 per hour, which meant a 46 percent increase in average wages, said Hoddinott.

Consumption of atole in childhood did not have an effect on women's income, probably because few of them participated in the formal labour market. However, preliminary analysis suggests that schooling increased for women who had consumed atole, and that reading comprehension increased significantly in both men and women.

The study, spanning more than 30 years since it began in 1969, was led by Reynaldo Martorell, Woodruff Professor of International Nutrition at Emory University, in an attempt to assess the effects of improved nutrition on children's physical and mental development.

Window of opportunity

"The study confirms that the first two years of life are the window of opportunity, when nutrition programmes have an enormous impact on a child's development, with life-long benefits," said Martorell.

Improved nutrition in early childhood leads to better adult human capital, including larger body size, greater physical work capacity, more schooling, and better cognitive skills, said Hoddinott. The findings provide a strong argument for countries in Africa and Asia to increase investment in child nutrition programmes "as they drive long-term economic growth by leading to healthier and more productive adults."

Previous studies have shown that about 200 million children in developing countries do not reach their developmental potential and are likely to do poorly in school as a result of stunting, iodine deficiency, iron deficiency anaemia, and inadequate cognitive stimulation, according to The Lancet's article.

The research in Guatemala was conducted by Emory University in the US, IFPRI, the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama, the University of Pennsylvania, and Middlebury College, also in the US, and was supported by the US-based National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

In an accompanying comment in the The Lancet, Scott Grosse and Kakoli Roy of the US-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, commented: "The size of the effect on earnings in men was as surprising as the absence of a similar association for women. We look forward to future analyses from Martorell and colleagues' study that quantify each of the causal pathways from early nutrition to earnings, which would provide more conclusive evidence to build support for sustainable large-scale nutritional programmes."

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