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Mary Adjepong: Solving the problem of childhood stunting

Aug. 2, 2017

Mary Adjepong, a scholar with the Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development program in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, wants to solve the problems of nutritional deficiencies and stunting in her home country of Ghana, especially for children in rural areas.

Childhood stunting, a condition where children are too short in stature for their age, typically becomes permanent once established. Caused by nutritional deficiencies that arise from inadequate dietary intake, stunting has severe long-lasting consequences, including diminished mental ability and learning capacity, poor school performance and an increased susceptibility to nutrition-related chronic diseases in adulthood.

The goal of BHEARD, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is to develop agricultural scientists and increase agricultural research capacity in partner countries. The program is named after Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution.”

In Ghana, 19 percent of children below five years of age have a stunted growth rate due to malnutrition. And though there has been a reduction in stunting, the situation still persists in northern Ghana, where 33.1 percent of children are stunted. The reasons for the regional difference are not entirely clear, but it’s likely that location or local culture limits the access of foods that could be sources of fatty acids, according to Adjepong’s research.

Mary Adjepong talks with residents in Ghana

Ghanaian diets mostly are made up of starchy roots and tubers and fruits and vegetables, while the intake of proteins and fats is below adequate levels. In some rural communities, complementary foods for infants and children have huge portions of carbohydrates with little or no added fats. This low dietary diversity could cause a potential deficiency in essential fatty acids.

Fatty acids are a nutritional component crucial to growth and development and associated with cognitive abilities. Essential fatty acids  are those fatty acids that cannot be synthesized by the body and must be added to the diet. Responsible for myelination of brain neurons and maturation of synapses, EFAs are usually found in poultry, fish, meat and some seeds and nuts – expensive sources of food for the rural inhabitants of developing countries.

Adjepong, who’s pursuing a doctorate in human nutrition, is studying the role of whole-blood fatty acids in the growth and cognitive function of Ghanaian children. She hopes that the study outcomes will inform her country’s policy-makers on the potential role of EFAs in stunting interventions.

Another goal of Adjepong’s is to identify Ghanaian foods rich in fatty acids. The country is home to seeds and nuts, but the fatty acid and mineral composition of many of them is poorly understood. Identifying these foods, encouraging farmers to grow them and promoting them through nutrition education could help curb stunting.

Adjepong will return to Ghana in September and expects to earn her doctorate in June 2018. She plans to share the outcomes of her research with scientists and students, and will encourage more students to take up research projects. She also will encourage and mentor young women to take science-related courses, which in developing countries traditionally are reserved for men.

Story by Matt Milkovich, Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development