Nutritional and Health-Related Environmental Studies (NAHRES)

Programme Activities

The importance of nutrition in development is increasingly demonstrated by the growing international awareness that the magnitude of malnutrition as a global health problem will prevent many countries from achieving the Millennium Development Goals, and that cost effective solutions to the problems exist. That nutrition interventions represent excellent economic investments was concluded during the May 2004 Copenhagen Consensus. According to the Consensus, the returns of investing in programmes providing micronutrients are second to the returns of fighting HIV/AIDS and 3 other nutrition related interventions placed within the top dozen proposals.

The overall aim of IAEA’s activities in human nutrition is to assist Member States in their efforts to combat malnutrition in all its forms by contributing technical expertise in the use of nuclear techniques, in particular stable isotope techniques, in the development and evaluation of nutrition interventions. Stable isotope techniques have been used as research tools in nutrition for many years; however, the application of these techniques in programme development and evaluation is a relatively new approach where the Agency has a unique opportunity to contribute technical assistance to Member States. As only stable (non-radioactive) isotopes are used, the techniques can be applied in the most vulnerable population groups, i.e. pregnant and lactating women, infants and children. The use of stable isotope techniques adds value by increasing the sensitivity and specificity of measurements as compared to conventional techniques.

The nutrition subprogramme consists of 3 projects, addressing priority areas in nutrition globally:

  1. Combating the double burden of malnutrition

About 170 million children worldwide are underweight. At the same time, more than a billion adults are overweight and childhood obesity is an increasing problem worldwide. This double burden of malnutrition results in a heavy burden on health systems in countries where treatment of diet related non-communicable diseases will be increasingly needed at the same time as undernutrition and communicable diseases are still prevalent.

Within this project, stable isotope techniques to assess body composition and total energy expenditure is used in a wide range of applications, e.g. to generate new information on body composition, metabolic health and energy expenditure in children and adolescents as well as to optimize the management of severely malnourished infants and young children. In addition, a major focus of this project is on infant and young child feeding, in particular related to the use of stable isotope techniques to quantitate intake of human milk in breastfed infants and the influence of early feeding on body composition of young children.

  1. Sustainable strategies to combat micronutrient deficiencies

Micronutrient deficiencies, “the hidden hunger”, affect a large proportion of the global population, in particular infants, children and women of child bearing age in developing countries. The development of effective, sustainable, food based strategies to combat micronutrient deficiencies is therefore urgently needed. As an integral part of the development of nutritional interventions to combat micronutrient deficiencies, stable isotope techniques are used to evaluate bioavailability of micronutrients, in particular iron, zinc and pro-vitamin A.

For example, within this project, the usefulness of an innovative approach – the introduction of nutritionally improved crop varieties “biofortified crops” - will be evaluated as sources of micronutrients by stable isotope techniques in developing countries. In addition, the IAEA also supports the development and evaluation of more conventional strategies to combat “the hidden hunger”, i.e. food fortification and dietary modification.

  1. Nuclear techniques in the management of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases

Infectious diseases and undernutrition often overlap, as illness can result in undernutrition and undernutrition increases susceptibility to disease. This relationship is complex and suggests that individuals living in resource poor settings are particularly vulnerable to being caught in a vicious cycle. Of these individuals, infants and young children are the most vulnerable to the devastating effects of poor nutrition and infections. The importance of access to an adequate diet and to integrate nutrition into a comprehensive response to HIV/AIDS was recently highlighted by the World Health Organization (resolution EB117.R2; WHA59.11). In particular, as antiretroviral (ARV) treatment becomes readily available in resource poor areas, the associations between nutrition — HIV/AIDS — ARV treatment needs special attention.

Stable isotope techniques to assess changes in body composition are used within this project to evaluate nutrition interventions targeted to individuals living with HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.