Thoughts on nutrition supplements

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Lipid based nutrient supplements (LNS) are perhaps one of the most exciting, and potentially transformative emerging technologies for the treatment of chronic malnutrition. LNS preparations are called ‘lipid-based’ because, unlike older nutritional formulations, they derive a much larger percentage of their calories from fats (typically from peanuts, milk, and vegetable oils). They also generally contain a full complement of vitamins and micronutrients. Because they are fat-based, these micronutrients may be more easily absorbed by the body (they are not bound up by plant phytates which are abundant in grain-based nutritional supplements). They also provide essential fatty acids, whose importance for promoting healthy growth and brain development is more and more appreciated today.

Most people have heard of at least one type of LNS product, Plumpydoz®, which has revolutionized the treatment of severe acute malnutrition in many countries throughout the world. Plumpydoz® is classified as a therapeutic food, meaning that it is extremely dense in calories and is essentially meant to be used in a situation where aggressive ‘refeeding’ is necessary. Since the product has a long shelf life, does not require mixing or cooking, and is tasty, it has produced a paradigm shift in the treatment of severe malnutrition. Previously, most cases of severe malnutrition needed to be hospitalized, often simply because the mixing and preparation of refeeding solutions was complex and required special tools and training. Plumpydoz® uncomplicates this process, which means that refeeding can happen in the home and in rural communities.

What many people do not know, however, is that new research has led to the development of a range of other LNS products, which are lower in calories while still providing a full complement of micronutrients. These products include some which provide a medium amount of calories (Plumpydoz® is one example) and some that provide a small amount of calories (Nutributter® is an example). These are very welcome developments, because they could potentially be used in development settings where chronic malnutrition, rather than acute malnutrition, is the norm. Chronic malnutrition, is generally a smoldering illness which affects a child over months to years and, until now, we haven’t really had any very effective tools for dealing with it. Using Plumpynut® for treating chronic malnutrition would be sort of like using a fire hose to put out a candle.

This isn’t to say that the ‘candle’ of chronic malnutrition is something to sniff at. There are many more children in the world with chronic malnutrition than with acute malnutrition. Whereas acute malnutrition puts a child at immediate and obvious risk of death, chronic malnutrition consumes their biological and social potential in a slow, insidious way. Chronically malnourished children are shorter than their peers. They have more frequent episodes of diarrhea and respiratory illness. They have slower intellectual development and lower IQs. They are less likely to complete school. As adults, and are more likely to be unemployed or to have low paying jobs. Perhaps most horrifying of all, chronic malnutrition as a child greatly increases the risk of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes in adulthood – directly contributing to the rising epidemic of these disease in the developing world.

Exactly how to combat chronic malnutrition with LNS formulations is not entirely worked out yet. There are some positive studies; for example, this study showed that the rates of severe chronic malnutrition could be reduced by supplementation with a Nutributter® like product in children in Malawi. However, the factors which influence and maintain chronic stunting vary significantly from environment to environment. For example, in Malawi chronic malnutrition is greatly influenced by seasonal food insecurity and cyclical droughts; in this type of setting, it is common for there also to be a lot of acute malnutrition. On the other hand, in Guatemala (which has the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the Western hemisphere), there is no seasonality to malnutrition patterns; here, malnutrition is clearly related more to endemic racism and lack of access to basic medical care and only more obliquely to food production patterns and food insecurity. In short, what might work in one context to treat (or prevent) chronic malnutrition might not work somewhere else.

Clearly, there is exciting and important work to be done. In Guatemala, we have been working at Wuqu’ Kawoq with both medium calorie and low calorie LNS products. For example, we have been using Plumpydoz® in 5 different communities for about 12 months now. In these communities, the Plumpydoz® seems generally well accepted with decent uptake and utilization (we have just completed formal data collection to prove this point, although the numbers will have to wait for now as analysis is ongoing). In the cohort of the most severely stunted children, height recovery also seems to be progressing nicely. Most mothers also report reductions in rates of acute illness in their children. We are conducting a prospective analysis of the growth data in these communities over the next several years, which we hope will bear out these more anecdotal observations. Potentially the great advantage of a medium calorie preparation is that it could provide some nutritional boost to children who are already malnourished at the start of a program, and this is the hypothesis we are exploring – that Plumpydoz®, or another product like it, can provide both prevention of malnutrition onset in the youngest children but also some recuperation in older, already-malnourished children.

This contrasts with Nutributter®, a low calorie LNS preparation, which provides only about 100 daily calories (with, of course, a full complement of micronutrients). Nutributter® is unlikely to be as effective in the treatment of chronic malnutrition, but the hypothesis is that it could prevent malnutrition in the youngest of children. For this reason, it is typically used only in children under 24 months of age (who are at least somewhat less likely to be malnourished). Obviously, this hypothesis has some immediate problems, at least in Guatemala, where in our experience the onset of malnutrition is sometimes before 12 months of age. Nevertheless, because of its convenience and portability, Nutributter® is probably the best-suited product we have right now to blanket scale-up. For this reason, we are right now running a scale-up intervention using Nutributter® is 5,000 children under 2 years of age, with funding from USAID. We are collecting data prospectively on acceptability of the product, but also on growth, achievement of development milestones, and frequency of acute illness to try to better delineate the benefits of Nutributter® in this rural Guatemalan population.

One of the most exciting aspects of the low-intensity scale up initiative is that it has put us into contact with some 75 new rural communities and over a dozen collaborating organizations. Over the last 2 months, we have been visiting each of these communities to train their volunteers who will collect the growth data and administer the program locally in their respective communities. These trips and interactions have been very exciting, especially to see how quickly and eagerly community leaders apprehend the key concepts (What is chronic malnutrition? What causes it? What is the role of breastfeeding and complementary foods? What does an LNS product have to add?). In many of these communities, chronic malnutrition rates top 80%. LNS products here can serve as a unifying symbol which helps to mobilize and motivate in our collective fight against this endemic, devastating childhood disease.