In Mwanza, Tanzania, where nutritional deprivation runs rampant, Dr. Jason DeCaro, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, recently discovered that when families don’t have a reliable source for food, their babies don’t thrive as well. But surprisingly it’s not all about the food.
“Household food insecurity is about more than just nutrition,” DeCaro said. “When you can’t reliably feed yourself and your family, it erodes mental, social, and physical health even if you end up with enough calories at the end of the day—and of course you may well not.”
For the study, DeCaro partnered with Dr. Warren Wilson of the University of Calvary and Dr. Mange Manyama of Tanzania’s Catholic University of Health and Allied Sciences. An article featuring their findings was published in the American Journal of Human Biology in November.
According to DeCaro, when women breastfeed, it helps babies grow steadily—even when their mothers are undernourished. “Breastfeeding is a pretty good buffer,” he said. And it explains why babies in Tanzania maintain pretty standard weights and lengths. Still, DeCaro wondered if something else might be affecting the infants in their later years.
“We suspected there might still be other ways that household adversity was ‘getting under the skin’ and affecting these kids from the very start of their lives,” DeCaro explained.
The missing link is mental health, specifically depression-like symptoms. Mothers who don’t know how they will feed themselves often develop mental health problems. They stress, and that stress subsequently stresses their infants, which can cause problems in growth and development.
DeCaro makes clear, however, that mothers are not to be blamed:
“This study highlights that when mothers experience subjective forms of distress, it gets under the skin of their infants,” he said. “But you’re not going to address the problem simply by medicating distressed mothers for depression. Absolutely, mental healthcare is important, but we have to think deeper about why mothers are struggling with these things. A big part of their stress is structural and embedded in other problems, like poverty. Improving mental health services for mothers is one way of improving kids’ overall well-being, but we need to think of poverty elimination programs as early intervention programs, too.”
DeCaro and colleagues made their discovery while sampling the blood of food-insecure women and children. In the samples, he identified levels of a protein that marks inflammation. High levels of the protein are associated with adult cardiovascular disease and can also inhibit growth for infants and young children. Maternal depression is also associated with higher inflammation in the infants, and other studies have shown links between depression and poor infant growth.
Ultimately, DeCaro found that the mother’s well-being is the infant’s well-being, and both are made worse by food insecurity. This indicates that children living in poverty are doubly harmed, not only by their family’s lack of reliable food, but also by the stress that their mothers feel while living in these conditions.
The study, though focused on Tanzania, could have implications domestically.
“The circumstances are different, but large numbers of Americans don’t know where their family’s next meal will come from,” DeCaro said. “We know that we won’t be able to replicate this finding in the United States precisely, but we could expect to see similar patterns with the insights that we gained regarding connections between food security, mental health among adults, and early childhood development.”