SO3. Enhancing Nutrition

SO.3. Enhancing Nutrition: To improve the nutritional quality of diets and to enhance the nutritional and health status of the poor.

Theme 3 of the Feed the Future Research Strategy, Enhancing Nutrition, focuses on increasing both access to nutrient-dense foods, such as edible grain legumes, and regular consumption of diverse, quality foods for improved human health. The research strategy recognizes the vitally important relationships between what a person eats, the individual’s ability to absorb and utilize nutrients from the foods consumed, and the influence of interacting health and environmental factors (e.g., water quality).

Enhancing dietary quality through greater consumption of grain legumes is an effective approach to improving human nutrition and health. The benefits afforded by regularly eating beans are not only attributable to their affordability and high nutrient composition (quality protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and the like) but also to their role in supporting gut health and function. When grain legumes are consumed regularly, research indicates that healthy intestinal microbial communities are supported, leading to less inflammation of the colon and the improved absorption of essential nutrients from ingested foods. Thus, legumes improve the nutritional value of diets among the poor, including cereal-based traditional diets.

But knowledge gaps exist; the physiological role(s) of grain legumes in diets and its interactions with other foods need to be better understood if legumes are to achieve their envisioned impact on the nutritional and health status of the poor and to inform policy makers of the nutritional and health-promoting value of grain legumes.The  Legume Innovation Lab’s project to enhance nutrition among the poor focuses on the addition of grain legumes in the diets of young mothers, infants, and young children as a means to address nutrition-based stunting and other disabilities associated with environmental enteropathy, an inflammatory gut condition that often develops within the first three years of life, particularly in the high-risk period marked by the transitions from exclusive breastfeeding to mixed feeding with complementary foods to the complete reliance on adult foods for sustenance early in life. By replacing complementary foods such as the protein-poor and micronutrient-poor starches such as maize, cassava, and sorghum with common beans and cowpeas (two study groups), researchers hope to demonstrate that legumes make a preferable complementary food for children weaning from exclusive breastfeeding. With appropriate preparation, legumes are quite digestible and well tolerated by children—and the increased protein they bring to a diet should contribute to a healthy gut microbiome, to strengthened immune systems, and to healthy child growth and development in resource-poor households. A study that provides solid evidence of the value of grain legumes over monotonous starches in the diets of young children could be a game changer in improving nutrition and reducing the devastating of environmental enteropathy in impoverished parts of the world.