An egg a day, not an apple, might be the best way for children to stay healthy and strong.
Young children who consume an egg daily are nearly half as likely to suffer from stunting, a condition that includes not only diminutive height and unhealthfully low weight but impaired brain development, weak immune systems, and other problems, according to research published Wednesday in the journal Pediatrics.
“They are very holistic in the package of nutrients they provide,” said Lora Iannotti, a child nutrition expert at Washington University who worked with researchers at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador and others on the research. “But the other thing that’s super important for eggs is that, compared to other high-quality foods, they are affordable. The leading risk factor for stunting is poverty.”
One in four children under the age of 5 are stunted, according to 1,000 Days, a nonprofit campaign to improve children’s health. On his fifth birthday, a stunted boy might be around 3.5 inches shorter than the average boy who is 3 feet 7 inches tall, according to the World Health Organization.
It’s an affliction that has wider consequences. The campaign estimates that stunting could be reducing gross domestic products in some countries by as much 12 percent.
“All over the world there are lot of different nutrition programs,” Iannotti said, referring to supplements and processed foods that aid organizations distribute to needy populations. “Our rationale going into this study was ‘Let’s use a food that’s locally available, that’s higher quality, and that provides all the nutrients in a very comprehensive and bioavailable package.’”
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Iannotti and her colleagues gave an egg a day to children 6 to 9 months in a town south of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, for six months. They compared their growth with other children in a control group that did not receive an egg. More than 42 percent of children in the region were stunted, the study said.
But stunted growth was 47 percent less common in the egg eaters, and all the egg eaters grew more in proportion to the control group even if they were not malnourished, the study found. They were also 74 percent less likely to be underweight.
Coincidentally, mothers of the children reported the kids ate less sugar-sweetened foods, a coincidence that could mean the babies’ stomachs were filled up so they didn’t crave empty calories, Iannotti said.
She also noted that, in many countries, public health authorities recommend women don’t give their children eggs in their first year due to fears of allergies and diseases like salmonella. But none of the children in the study suffered from those issues.
The World Health Assembly, an international forum of health officials, has set a goal of reducing stunting by 40 percent in the next eight years. The study noted that officials are on track to miss that target by around 25 million children.
Eggs contain around half of the nutrients necessary for breastfeeding infants, the study said. They might be the best way to close that gap and save a generation of kids from missing out on opportunities to make the world a better place, said Iannotti.
“I’m the last person to say eggs are going to save the world,” she said. “But all the kids moved closer to their genetic potential.”
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