Changing behaviors for better health and nutrition

Health workers provide counseling services to mother on infant and young child feeding in Khanh Hoa, Vietnam. (Flickr/ Alive & Thrive)

Blog written by Pete Shelton, IFPRI. Originally posted on IFPRI.org.


Getting the right nutrition in the period between a child’s conception and his or her second birthday−the so-called 1,000 day window−can have profound impacts on the child’s ability to grow, learn, and become a productive member of society. A growing body of research demonstrates that the opposite is also true: malnutrition early in life can cause irreversible damage to children’s cognitive and physical development, leading to diminished learning capacity, poor academic performance, lower incomes, and the increased prevalence of chronic disease. Limited access to diverse, nourishing foods, lack of knowledge on optimal practices, and low household incomes are all leading contributors to early childhood malnutrition. Yet research also shows that many of these may be addressed by combining nutrition-sensitive approaches with social and behavior change communication (SBCC), the latter being the theme of three-day conference in Addis Ababa this week

Nutrition-sensitive approaches include a wide range of interventions from other related sectors−such as agriculture, social protection, education, and women’s empowerment−that are shown to positively impact nutritional outcomes among targeted beneficiaries. A series of IFPRI-led studies are exploring and documenting these so-called impact pathways, particularly as they relate toward achieving better nutritional outcomes during the 1,000 day window through targeting new and expectant mothers.

Highlights from IFPRI’s recent work on this topic include:

In addition to the studies highlighted above, several more IFPRI studies directly examining the relationship between SBCC and nutritional outcomes are ongoing, with results to be published in the coming months and years. Moreover, many other IFPRI-led programs and projects include key behavior change communication elements, such as HarvestPlus’ promotion of biofortified crops through integrated nutrition education campaigns and community plantings, radio programs, and even concerts and videos by pop music stars.

Across all of the programs under evaluation, one research finding remained constant: SBCC is a key element for improving the impact of nutrition-sensitive impacts. Yet researchers often tasked with examining the effectiveness of two-year pilot programs often were left hoping such programs would not only integrate key researcher findings to improve overall program effectiveness but also that they would be funded beyond their pilot phase to begin with.

Speaking about the enhanced-homestead food production program in Burkina Faso, IFPRI senior research fellow Deanna Olney states, “This program is only two years, which is really too short to have the children benefit from all of the interventions being offered. So, a longer duration, a longer program exposure, would likely lead to further improvements in [targeted beneficiaries’] health and nutritional outcomes.”

Two reasons for optimism from this particular study are: first, the program did have a positive impact on children’s health and nutrition outcomes; and second, Hellen Keller International (HKI) already has adopted several of the recommendations for boosting the program’s potential to improve children’s health and nutrition outcomes proposed by Olney and her colleagues based on their research findings. According to Olney, IFPRI is now working with HKI project staff on the ground to evaluate the impact of these changes in what they hope will be another step toward not only further improving nutritional outcomes but also contributing to better program design and implementation in the future.

*Additional resources on behavior change research, related publications, and a video on the Burkina Faso study are all available on the original blogpost.