A Look into the Gendered Dimension of Malnutrition

A recent study co-authored by Dr. Jana Jabbour provides timely insight into the impact of gender disparities on malnutrition among women in the Eastern Mediterranean Region.

The world’s population has been in an incessant battle with global malnutrition, oscillating between food waste, undernutrition, overconsumption and overall poor diets. This lack of access to adequate quality and quantity of food has severe physical and psychological repercussions which have rendered the world malnourished.

In the Eastern Mediterranean Region (EMR), where gender disparities are particularly pronounced, malnutrition is both an economic and cultural issue, stemming from intrinsic socioeconomic, behavioral and biological factors.

Studying this reality, Assistant Professor of Nutrition Jana Jabbour tackled the dilemma of Middle Eastern women and girls falling victim to higher rates of malnutrition and related health problems in a co-authored paper titled “Malnutrition and gender disparities in the Eastern Mediterranean Region: The need for action.” In collaboration with a working group specializing in gender studies, Dr. Jabbour underlines the critical need to actively redress these discrepancies and improve health outcomes for all individuals in the region.

“Usually, to understand the etiology of a health condition,” said Dr. Jabbour, “we study the characteristics of those affected by it, to eventually identify relevant risk factors.” While some of the factors behind the prevalent malnutrition amongst women tend to be biological (anemia, dietary patterns, cardiovascular disorders, etc.), she added, other factors are more related to demographic components, such as socioeconomic status, household income, and the like.

Using the Gender Development Index (GDI) – a measure of gender-based disparities in human development – across 22 EMR countries to assess the pervasiveness of malnutrition, the study found that health inequalities and their dire consequences partly stem from gender differences. For women in some EMR countries, inaccessibility to education, lack of exercise, socioeconomic and political conflicts, as well as other determinants of health like class, age, disability and so on, can lead to malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies.

“While EMR countries, especially those affected by conflict, continue to experience high levels of food insecurity, undernutrition, and micronutrient deficiencies, physical inactivity, overweight and obesity are also common in the region, with some countries suffering from the double burden of malnutrition” the study found.

According to Dr. Jabbour, gender acts as a major key determinant of malnutrition, thereby contributing to a concoction of “both sex-linked biological and gender-related social influences” on health outcomes. Further, it was found that women dedicate an excessive amount of their time to the nutritional needs of their families and household, in turn attending less to their own.

Among the numerous social factors, in countries suffering from food security for instance, “women and girls are more vulnerable to malnutrition as the social norms can result in them eating less during food scarcity in favor of men and boys,” the study found. “Women, in fact, tend to reduce their own food intake in order to allow other family members to eat.”

This comes in parallel with women’s “increased biological, socioeconomic and behavioral risk factors for malnutrition,” given that they require more protein, energy and micronutrients than usual when pregnant and lactating, Dr. Jabbour added.

For this reason, Dr. Jabbour suggests a multi-faceted approach that scrutinizes the composite social and economic constituents contributing to malnutrition, including policies and programs that aim to advocate for gender equality, improve access to education and employment and provide targeted support for women and girls.

When asked about how a gendered approach can appropriately tackle the main core of this gendered dilemma, Dr. Jabbour noted that “this is what makes it such a layered approach, for we cannot rely on a policy that would change the mindset of people, as it would take decades.”

Instead, she hopes that this approach be adopted alongside health education initiatives and empowering awareness campaigns to address the pressing matters of malnutrition and ensure women are provided with their dietary needs.