A Research Agenda for Healthier Diets in Bangladesh


by A4NH | January 26, 2020

Bangladesh grappled with a severe famine shortly after its independence, in 1974. For decades, its agricultural policy was managed to ensure such an event did not occur again, focusing on increasing rice production and distribution at all costs. Only after the government was sure rice would be in surplus did it begin to shift its policy to also consider diet diversity.

In recent years, since grain is in surplus, policy in Bangladesh has turn to promoting more diversity, and indeed the country as made substantial progress toward both food and nutrition security. The gains have not been enjoyed by everyone, however, and some of these gains are being threatened by increasing availability and consumption of processed foods, which can contribute to increasing incidence of another form of malnutrition, overweight and obesity. To help identify ways the country can move forward towards food and nutrition security for all, the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health’s (A4NH) Food Systems for Healthier Diets (FSHD) research flagship has conducted a study analyzing Bangladesh’s food system.

The study, titled “Food Systems for Healthier Diets in Bangladesh: Towards a Research Agenda,” supports the government’s commitment to address hunger and malnutrition, outlined in the multi-sectoral Country Investment Plan. Researchers convened meetings with key national stakeholders from a variety of sectors and studied at the interactions across different aspects of the food system, including diet quality, the food environment, consumer behavior, agricultural production, and more. Looking at each of these pieces individually, as well as how they interact, enabled the researchers to identify key questions for future research into how to improve the food system in Bangladesh towards ensuring healthy diets for all.

Their findings, recently released as a discussion paper, draw attention to several key points:

  • Generally speaking, diets in Bangladesh have improved. Policies played a role in not only improving diets, but also in addressing the problem of food insecurity. However, undernutrition does remain at relatively high levels among some groups, so thought must be given to ensuring people and places are not left behind.
  • While food insecurity has declined, a rising concern now is on the opposite end of the spectrum as rates of overweight and obesity rise alongside a very rapid rise in the availability of ultra-processed foods.
  • The processing sector and food retailers are not yet well regulated, which leads to substantial food safety and adulteration concerns. More regulation in this area could help ensure that, as consumers have access to a growing range of foods and options for purchasing, they can be confident in the safety of what they eat.
  • To support addressing these issues, a better understanding of the overall food system, but particularly the food environment, is needed. The food environment is defined by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food and Nutrition Security, as the physical, economic, political and socio-cultural context in which consumers engage with the food system to make their decisions about acquiring, preparing and consuming food. The many ways in which consumers interact with their food environment helps understand why choices are made and how policies and other interventions might shape those choices towards healthier diets. At present, studies of the food environment in Bangladesh are scarce.

“The food system in Bangladesh is still in a state of evolution,” noted Alan de Brauw, Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and lead author of the study. “It’s a critical, and exciting, time to be identifying ways to ensure this evolution provides healthy diets for all Bangladeshis.”


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