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Aspen at Expo - The role of nutrition in future health: the gender challenge

Food Security, Nutrition and Global Health
Milan, 08/07/2015, International Workshop

The intersection between women, nutrition and health is undeniable. Women are the food matrons of the world as in most cases they are the ones who purchase and prepare what families eat. They are also the world’s caregivers, meaning they are typically the ones who look after children, the elderly and the sick. Despite this women are also the most food insecure and make up the majority of the world’s patient population, though they have the least access to healthcare.

An important lesson on this intersection and the future of human health came from the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Not only did it demonstrate how health on the other side of the planet can affect others in an ever more inter-connected world, it also highlighted the female factor in the link between health, nutrition and environment. A pregnant woman who butchered an infected wild animal in unsanitary conditions to feed her family was one of the first cases. The virus quickly spread to local obstetricians who were in contact with her body, and then to the world.

Promoting better nutrition, healthy environments and access to healthcare can significantly reduce risks. Education is also key. For example, simply teaching women to sanitize their hands when handling food, and to teach their children the same, can keep families, entire communities and even countries safe from disease.

Managing domestic animals is also a factor in this intersection. In the developing world it is common for men to work outside the home while women care for children and animals in the domestic setting. There are some diseases that are devastating for animals, which are an important source of both protein and capital. Teaching women efficient ways of keeping these animals healthy can actually make communities in the developing world thrive – both on nutritional and micro-economical levels.

In addition, women’s health itself should be given more consideration. Not only should access to healthcare be seen as crucial to the future of human health, it should also be accepted that men and women are different and should be treated differently. Much medical knowledge is based on studies done on male bodies as women’s bodies have traditionally been considered difficult to study due to hormonal cycles. Though this is changing in the West, most societies are still not used to addressing male and female patients specifically – especially in areas where it can matter most like obesity, nutrition and diabetes. Early lifestyle changes are key in these specific examples as it has been proven that life can be prolonged through good nutrition. However, such interventions will only be most effective if given a gender-based approach.

This leads to nutritional literacy and the need to ensure quality in the information women receive. For example, many women in the West see cardiovascular disease as a male disease and do not take preventative measures. It is also crucial to find new ways of communicating health messages, like through social media, and getting people into new habits. Also labeling foods in a scientific way is key in spreading knowledge about what people are actually eating. A global discussion is needed here as labels are now being determined nation by nation, while many foods are global products. This is creating imbalances in food contents that must be corrected in a way that promotes transparency, healthier food, but does not wage trade wars.

Finally, the future of global health, for both developing and advanced societies, will need to witness an evolution that requires bringing in aspects that one may not normally think of, like the link between nutrition and gender. And a “One Health” approach would be essential. A mix between various disciplines, collaborating on local, national and global levels to secure the best health possible through good nutrition and a clean environment, would represent a new Health 2.0 reality for males and females alike.

A conversation on sport, nutrition and health

Sport nutrition was once based on the simple idea that an athlete must avoid eating large amounts of food, but at the same time have a lot of energy. This has changed over the years as it is now known that sport nutrition should be based on a complex mix of factors including: the right timing of food intake in relation to exercise, eating the foods that make a difference when it comes to producing energy, eating foods that help decrease injury, and make for a quick recovery in the case of injury, and – most importantly - the type of sport an athlete practices and his or her gender.

Doctors are also starting to take into consideration very specific individual factors when making recommendations, especially in relation to nutritional supplements. Another factor that is beginning to receive more attention is the pre-conception health of female athletes and how their athletic skills and health can be affected after birth.

As athletes are under extreme pressure, especially very young ones, thus education is also important in their mental and physical care. It is crucial to reinforce not only healthful eating, but also concepts such as “everyone’s bodies are different” and the importance of avoiding risk factors such as doping. Also, to better promote education, doctors and coaches need to take on more responsibility. Doctors should spend more time explaining in detail the reasons behind their recommendations and coaches need to openly discuss the pressure involved in sports including issues surrounding self-image.