Women's Health and Undernutrition in the U.S.

05/13/2015 06:37 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

By Lucy Martinez Sullivan, Executive Director, 1,000 Days & Hugh Welsh, President of DSM North America

Every year during National Women's Health Week, women are asked to make their health a priority. It's an important reminder as women's health issues from cancer and heart disease to mental health play out on the national stage. However, it's also important to remember that not every woman has the ability to put their health first.

The organization 1,000 Days focuses on a woman's health and that of their developing child from pregnancy through the first two years of a child's life. It's a critical time for both. It is also when children's brain development requires proper nutrition, vitamins and minerals. Deficits during that time have been linked to cognitive delays, poorer educational outcomes, stunted growth and chronic health problems that can last a lifetime. Unfortunately, it is women and children who bear the brunt of undernutrition.

So often, hunger and undernutrition are cast as "third world" problems, but that is not the case. This is not an over-there problem; it's a right-here problem. Sometimes called "hidden hunger," this deficiency in micronutrients is a growing problem in the U.S.

When you look at obesity statistics in the U.S. - one in eight preschoolers are obese by the time they enter kindergarten, for instance - it may seem that the last thing Americans are is undernourished. However, obesity can be a marker for undernutrition because both happen as a result of diets that are devoid of healthy nutrients. Today, 15 percent of Americans live in food insecure households, including almost 16 million children. Under nutrition and obesity often exist side-by-side within many of these households. This is the "double burden of malnutrition." And it hits low-income and food insecure families especially hard. It is usually the foods that are most calorie-dense, but nutritionally bankrupt, that are the least expensive and what many American families struggling to make ends meet can afford to buy.

If you take the pledge to be healthier this week, we're asking that you also take the time to think about the health of children and mothers who are facing hard economic realities and the health consequences of those circumstances.

What can you do? Advocate. Advocate for yourself. And advocate for those who can't. Here are some of the key areas where you can make a difference:

Encourage everyone to take women's health issues seriously. Poverty is one of the major societal determinants of cardiovascular disease worldwide, and the majority of people living in poverty in America are women. Another important health issue for women is depression. Women are 70 percent more likely to suffer from depression than men in their lifetime. Maternal depression also affects the healthy social and cognitive development of children. Yet negative attitudes toward depression, stigmatization of mental disorders, and a lack of affordable treatment options can result in a culture of silent suffering.

Wider distribution of vitamins as a weapon against under nutrition. Pre-natal nutrients such as folic acid and iron supplements have been shown to decrease birth defects in babies. Calcium is also important for to preventing women's bone density loss during pregnancy. Multivitamin distribution programs such as Vitamin Angels supported by Dutch global nutritional developer DSM give daily multivitamins to pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and children under five. Proper nutrient intake can reduce the negative cognitive effects of under nutrition of children especially during the time of critical brain development during the 1,000 days.

Better access to nutrient rich foods. Healthy and affordable food is a problem in so-called "food deserts" where the absence of grocery stores or supermarkets that sell healthy food options limits nutritious choices. The USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services do help with funding for projects that seek to establish healthy food retail outlets in food deserts, while local organizations and governments are working toward the same goal. D.C. Central Kitchen's Healthy Corner program, for example, provides wholesale produce in small quantities to corner grocery stores. Baltimore's mayor has proposed a plan to offer tax breaks to grocers who commit to certain areas of the city.

Support supplemental food programs such as WIC and SNAP. Supplemental nutrition assistance programs, aka food stamps, or the Women, Infants and Children program are lifelines for many Americans in times of need. These programs are effective at preventing some of the negative health effects that women in particular face as a result of job loss or economic strain.

There are no magic answers to under nutrition, but awareness is a great start. Take the next step and join in local efforts, or write your Congressperson, and advocate for a better 1,000 days - and better women's health -- for all.