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The Role of Fish in the First 1,000 Days in Zambia

20 October 2014

Fish is especially rich in essential omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and micronutrients, including bioavailable calcium, iron and zinc. Fish features prominently in the diet of most, especially poor, Zambians. Despite this, its significance in the diet of women and children in the first 1,000 days is not well understood, write Catherine Longley et al, Institute of Development Studies, UK.

Zambia is particularly well endowed with surface water resources, most of good environmental quality, and which provide fish and other aquatic foods, mainly from capture fisheries1 (Nkhuwa, Mweemba and Kabika 2013).

Fish is the most important animal-source food in the diet of many people (NFNC 2009), and dried small fish is thought to be the most common animal-source food of the poor, cooked as a relish and eaten with nshima (a thick porridge, normally made from maize flour, but also from millet, sorghum or cassava flour or any one of these combined with maize flour).

However, the quantity and frequency of fish consumption are small, especially among women and young children. The diet in Zambia is dominated by the staple crop, maize, and has little dietary diversity. Although consumption of dark green leafy vegetables is relatively high, consumption of other micronutrient-rich foods such as yellow/orange vegetables, animal-source foods and fruits is comparatively small (ibid.).

In Zambia, rates of malnutrition in children under five years are very high, with stunting, wasting and underweight all falling well above the thresholds recommended by the World Health Organization (ibid.). The 2009 National Nutrition Surveillance System (NNSS) results show that chronic malnutrition, as measured by stunting (height-for-age < -2 z-scores), was 49.5 per cent in children under five years of age.

Rates of malnutrition among children aged 6–11 months were found to be strikingly high, raising concerns about breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices: 26 per cent of girls and 38 per cent of boys were stunted, and 9 per cent and 8 per cent of girls and boys respectively were wasted in this age group.

Underweight (BMI <18.5) among women of reproductive age (15–49 years) was found to be 11 per cent in rural areas and 7 per cent in urban areas (ibid.). Increase in the consumption of micronutrient-rich foods, fish, other animal-source foods, vegetables and fruits in the first 1,000 days of life2 can help combat malnutrition.

Fish is a rich source of multiple nutrients with high bioavailability;3 all species of fish are rich in protein, while some species have particularly high levels of essential fatty acids and micronutrients, including calcium, iron and zinc (Beveridge et al. 2013). Thus, fish offers an important source of key nutrients required by pregnant and lactating women and young children for optimal child growth and development.

However, the present per capita fish supply in Zambia is low, 5.9kg/capita/annum (7.2kg, if net imports of fish are included) in 2011, having decreased by 50 per cent since 1970. This dramatic decrease in fish supply is likely due to a combination of factors including rapid population growth, declining capture fisheries, and an aquaculture sector that has yet to fulfil its potential.

This article reviews the data currently available on the importance of fish in the first 1,000 days of life and proposes various ways in which fish can be more effectively integrated in the First 1000 Most Critical Days Programme in Zambia. This is a national programme, aligned to the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) initiative, developed to address undernutrition through the coordinated involvement of relevant sector line ministries and multiple stakeholders.

October 2014

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