While in most developed countries, there is little, if any discrimination between the girl and the boy child as far as nutrition is concerned, a very large proportion of female child population in developing and economically weaker countries suffers from malnutrition. This is a fact corroborated by statistics, the result of researches of various agencies. But here the factors are completely cultural, in Asian, Latin American and some African cultures, a premium is placed on the baby boy and his upbringing is better monitored than a girl’s. An extreme result is female infanticide or even killing of female fetus in the womb itself. In basically agrarian societies, no one wants to be burdened with an unproductive member in the family. In partially agrarian cultures, no one wants to have a girl whose social status is far below that of the boy and in marrying her off, the family is often crippled by debt. So, infanticide or feticide is a better option. But more on that later.
The point here is, even in societies where there is no such inferiority hoisted on girl children, do parents, family or even the health services, place greater emphasis on the nutrition provided to a young girl? She is the mother of the next generation and hence, her basic nutrition should far outweigh the boy’s. A female body needs more calcium, iron and other nutrients in its formative years, to be able to bring forth healthy children and also keep their own bodies intact. No, this is not about considering procreation as the only activity that nature meant the woman to do. This is about the biological structure of the female. Whether or not she opts to become a mother, her chemistry and hormonal conditions change around mid-life and unless she has been well fed during her childhood and adolescence, the onset of middle age can bring in umpteen complications. How many doctors warn the parents of young girls about this? For them, food is not only about building and maintaining, but also about reserving for the time when bones will begin to thin and allow crippling diseases like osteoporosis to set in, or menopausal side effects due to certain deficiencies, or even recovery post childbirth, when the body’s stores have been all but depleted.
The first thing to do is to follow a health regime strictly. Aiming for a fit lifestyle (always place your needs before the family’s demands, because if you are down and out, who takes care of them? Worse still, who takes care of you?) Secondly, it is important for a woman to maintain an optimum body weight. Right from childhood, the parents should take care that her BMI and weight is proper, or else things may be dangerous. This is the primary reason why anorexic women may be everybody’s idea of beauty but they are nobody’s idea of fitness. Keeping a regular exercise regime will help, so will sticking to the good food pyramid recommendations for a good diet.
Here are some guidelines for women to follow a good health regime in their early years, pre-puberty, puberty and childbearing years…so they may not suffer the results of self-neglect in later years.
Parents of a girl should instill these values in their child early, preferably before puberty, so the routine can become a healthy lifelong habit. While binging and obesity have to be avoided, staving and anorexia are to be avoided too. So a good guidance from elders (parents or whoever they will listen to), is essential. Here, a lot of psychological factors are important too. The girl child must be taught the value of confidence, faith in one’s abilities and also that beauty is not about a thin body or a particular type of skin. This is definitely an onerous task, what with the regular bombardment of impossible idols for the young generation in media of every type. But a sustained, caring and intelligent guidance from elders who care can help instill the sense of “I Should be HEALTHY First…”in the girl. It goes a long way in fighting peer pressure for confirming to social (read POP) idols, when she feels she is good enough, even BETTER than Twiggy.
There are also certain sociological changes over the last few decades that have affected the way we eat… and the way kids want to eat. Changes in the traditional family pattern have encouraged teenagers to shop for groceries, where their decision-making powers get a free hand. Single parent or both parents working families may opt for a healthy food buy, but what is actually eaten is still not very determinable, in the absence of one or both parents. Teen food choices are influenced by too many factors, only one of them being health. Their concern is primarily to “look good” or “stay thin” or “build muscles”.
The sad part is that the American Diet isn’t designed to take care of the essential requirements of the growing body, it has the wrong kind of fats and proteins and is deficient in some essential nutrients like zinc. It relies very strongly on dairy products for its calcium and protein intake, which is in itself not a very healthy idea. Today nutritionists recommended smaller helpings of the All American Diet or low fat (or leaner) versions, at least for the growing up generation.
Remember, food grains and fresh fruits and vegetables are a MUST for a woman’s body, she needs more folate in her system, her childbearing capability demands it (even if she chooses not to bear children). Fresh fruits and vegetables are a MUST in every meal, and no, meat is not a substitute for fresh fruits. The intake of sugars and salts should be regulated as also oil and grease. This will also result in a glowing skin, a GREAT confidence booster and hence a really good incentive to eat healthy.
The objective for vegetable and fruit intake should be :
• At least three daily servings of fruit
• At least four daily servings of vegetables, with at least one-third greens or with carotene.
• Six or more daily servings of grain products, with three or more whole grain
Anemia (or deficiency of iron in the body), is a major cause of deaths in the childbearing category of females in most underdeveloped countries. A more serious charge is that it is also the cause of most deficiencies, malnourishment and mal-development of children in these countries. But anemia is not a poor man’s disease. It can follow even well fed children of affluent backgrounds, if they do not eat carefully. Specially during their reproductive years, women need extra iron (they lose almost 20 to 40 mg every month by way of menstruation). The absorption of these nutrients needs more nutrition, a good amount of folic acid as well as Vitamin B 12.
Calcium is another nutrient that is required in large quantities for growing girls, if they are to enable their bodies to fight back the onslaught of osteoporosis in later life. Adolescents (specially girls), need at least 1300 mg of calcium in their food everyday. It is a good idea to scan the food labels to know if the nutritive value of your food is what it should be. For instance, a glass of milk gives about 450 mg (almost 30%) of calcium while a cup of yogurt does a similar amount. Green leafy vegetables and calcium fortifies grains and juices can contribute the rest. Remember, women start losing bone mass at the age of 35, so the earlier you start, the better it is.
The health of a girl child should become every National Health Service’s priority if the country wants its future citizens to be strong and healthy. On a smaller scale, families should be taught this too, only then will the change in attitude be brought about.