What Westerners can learn from the dietary diversity of communities in the Better Food Better Health Project


By Brian Hilton and Margy Dowling  

A few hundreds of kilometres off the coast of Northern Australia lies the former Portuguese colony, East Timor, nestled amongst the Indonesian islands. Australia is undoubtedly a developed nation, yet its next-door neighbour is considered a fragile state – it is poor, has been ravaged by war and has a high rate of hunger and malnutrition, particularly in rural areas.  

Food productivity is low, nutrition knowledge is limited and dietary diversity is appalling. Anaemia is a significant concern in East Timor, and rampant in women and children. Newborns are automatically at a disadvantage, as anaemia begins a vicious cycle of undernutrition for children who struggle to catch-up at school with nourished children.  

When children are undernourished, they have weaker cognitive capacities which reduces their ability to learn. For women, anaemia causes exhaustion on a day-to-day basis as they try to raise families and manage their busy lives.  

World Vision’s Baseline Study (2017) found that 64 percent of women and children in one district of East Timor had anaemia. In the developed world, a simple solution is often found a vitamin supplement. But in East Timor, supplements are unaffordable.  

Better Food Better Health is a World Vision project that promotes the production of nutritious, high protein, underutilised foods that farmers can grow at home. These foods have been classed into six superfood categories: soybean legumes, red kidney beans, mung beans, vitamin A-rich orange sweet potato, iron-rich moringa leaves and eggs.  

 

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Margy holds orange sweet potato which are high in vitamin A. Farmers were ecstatic about the size and yield of the new potato.

 

The project uses more productive and faster growing varieties of foods to help farmers produce more crop yields. The Better Food Better Health project also introduces chicken-rearing activities to help support the community to generate incomes. When one project participant, an unpaid community health worker, reared multiple hens, she recalled, “I have so many hens that my chicken coop is full. I am now building a new chicken coop with my own money.”  

Not only are families better educated on nutrition, they are cooking more delicious dishes. And if you’re a fan of the television show MasterChef, you’ll appreciate the program promoting a village version to celebrate nutritious and delicious foods. These skills are being handed down to children, ensuring that the next generation can have a lasting impact.  

East Timorese people consume the lowest number of calories per person in Asia. They don’t usually eat between meals and their portion sizes are quite small. While increasing their calorie intake is critical, it is important they eat the rights kinds of calories – and not the deep-fried foods leading to obesity around the world.  

To improve the dietary diversity of East Timorese communities, Better Food Better Health looks at ways to increase nutrient availability and digestibility, also known as bioavailability. Beans, for example, consist of phytate – a complex molecule which binds with iron and zinc, making it harder to digest. Sprouting seeds, which involves soaking seeds, nuts, legumes or grains, decreases phytates and increases iron and zinc bioavailability.  

Like high-phytate foods, coffee also binds iron because it contains polyphenols. It is regularly consumed by East Timorese communities. The Better Food Better Health project recommends women don’t consume coffee two hours before or after an iron-rich meal in order for them to absorb more iron, a key mineral in combating anaemia.  

In Western countries, people concerned about anaemia, particularly women who struggle with iron-deficiency, can learn a lot about their iron intake from the teachings of the project. 

But it’s not just East Timorese communities that can benefit from these learnings. Producing food to improve iron intake and increasing our understanding of bioavailability and nutrition can help women and children all around the world consume a better diet. When considering nutrition, try eating like the East Timorese in the Better Food Better Health project.  


Margy Dowling is a Grant Manager at World Vision Australia. She has 19 years of experience in international development in a range of contexts in East and Southern Africa, Asia and the Pacific and currently manages World Vision’s East Timor Better Food Better Health program. Margy commenced her career as a nurse and graduated with a Masters in Public Health from Monash University. She is committed to helping communities improve their lives through health and nutrition.    

Brian Hilton is a Food Security Specialist with World Vision Australia. He has 25 years of development experience across Asia and Africa. He promotes biofortified crops around the world used for higher nutrition. He has a PhD from South Dakota State University.  

World Vision acknowledges the support of the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).

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