|BEFORE: Sukmaya Pariyar, five months Weight at admittance: 2.3kg |
AFTER: Sukmaya Pariyar, weight at discharge: 4kg, a gain of 1.7kg in 27 days
It is a cold January evening in Dadeldhura, almost as far from Kathmandu as you can go in Nepal.
Villagers are thronging our health camp, and I am examining them and discussing their symptoms. In the queue, I see a child who is suffering from acute respiratory infection and looks emaciated. He is six years old, and is eating a packet of instant noodles.
"Your child seems very small for his age, what does he eat?" I ask the mother.
"Yes, he is small," the mother agrees, "we are too poor to give him food, there is nothing in the house."
I ask her if she has lentils in the house, or rice or flour. She says she does. Does she have cows and milk? Yes, she does. Does she grow vegetables? Yes.
"So, what is the problem, why don't you give your child rice and dal, vegetables and milk?" I ask, dreading the answer I know is coming.
"But that is not real food, I need to give my child chou-chou and vitamins so he will be healthy," she says.
What have we done to Nepali mothers and their traditional knowledge of good, nutritious food? This knowledge, passed down from generations, seems to have been erased in a few decades through relentless misinformation through advertising.
The idea that easily available home foods are not nutritious while expensive processed foods in colourful foil packs are healthy is now ingrained in mothers across Nepal. Parents also demand expensive bottled vitamins and tonics for their children from doctors.
"There is absolutely no evidence that supplemental vitamins are good for growing children," says Ramesh Kant Adhikari, dean of the Medical College in Maharajganj.
Doctors are also to blame because they prescribe some of these food supplements even when the child doesn't even need them. They find it tedious to explain to parents that all they need is enough carbohydrate, vitamins, and proteins-all available in the traditional Nepali diet.
Adds Adhikari: "It's expensive being poor in Nepal. The lure of advertising hasbrainwashed a whole generation of parents and their children."
Lack of some vitamins caused by an inadequate diet may lead to a specific deficiency syndrome, that can easily be corrected if parents know what type of homemade foods contain those micronutrients. The middle class is also following dubious advertising for appetite stimulants, which if not harmful, are certainly a waste of money.
Adhikari is the author of Child Nutrition and Health a book full of recipes made from local Nepali food items rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins like surbottam pitho, jaulo, millet porridges, roti, rice, and dal.
The practical aspects of these ideas are propagated by the Nepal Youth Opportunities Foundation which has been working in field offices for the last eight years, saving lives of children who are malnourished, not with expensive medicine but simple homemade food.
In Dadeldhura, it was heartening to see the boy in the queue come back looking like a normal, healthy child after just a week of being on a healthy diet. Children have this amazing capacity of regenerating, and it is miraculous to see it happen before our eyes.
Now what needs to be done is counter the negative message going out through tv commercials and ads that promote junk food, and make doctors and their patients aware that a balanced diet is about the only medicine most children need.
Aruna Uprety is a women's health and reproductive rights activist.