Ask five people what the secret is to getting kids to eat healthier and you're likely to get five very different answers. But here's one answer you're not likely to hear: make sure they live near a forest. That's right. Forests.
A new study, the first of its kind, looked at the diets of children in 27 developing countries on four continents and found conclusively that the children who lived closer to forests had better overall nutrition.
"The data show that forests aren't just correlated with improvements in people's diets," says Ranaivo Rasolofoson, a scientist at the University of Vermont who participated in the study. "We show that forests cause these improvements."
The findings were significant: living close to a forest led to at least 25 percent greater diversity in the diet as opposed to children who lived further from forests.
The research team, led by the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Environment, looked at data on diets of 43,000 households from the Caribbean, to South America, sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia and the Philippines. The findings support other research that has found a strong connection between proximity to forests and increased dietary diversity as well as a reduced risk of micronutrient deficiency. Vitamin A and iron deficiencies were less common in households nearest to forests. The findings were published in the recent issue of the journal Science Advances.
Farmland, which often requires clearing of forests, has been long looked at as the answer to nutritional challenges in developing countries. And while growing nutrient-dense crops such as sweet potatoes or whole grains can help provide healthy food, the research suggests there may be greater benefit in keeping the forests intact.
"We discovered that the positive effect of forests is greater for poor communities," says Rasolofoson. "But communities need at least some access to roads, markets, and education in order to get the most benefit from their forests."
There are numerous other reasons to preserve forestland -- from protecting the habitats of animals and insects to improved air quality, carbon sequestration, and protecting waterways. Forestland also provides income sources for local communities--harvesting renewable resources from acai berries in the Amazon to cork harvesting in Portugal, for example.
"Our study shows that conservation and health can go hand in hand," says Brendan Fisher, a professor in UVM's Environmental Program in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and the study's co-author.
"Economic development and forest conservation are typically thought of as trade-offs--that leaders have to prioritize one or the other. This study helps to show that's just not always, or even usually, true. More often than we think, it's a false choice," says Taylor Ricketts.
Modern farming also brings a whole host of issues to communities such as chemical pesticides and herbicides for crops, and in the case of animal farming, there can be significant air and water pollution as well as soil contamination.
"This study is a wake-up call that people who work on forest conservation and those that work on improving children's health should be working together and coordinating what they do," says Brendan Fisher, a Fellow at UVM's Gund Institute. "We are now seeing a lot more examples of how an integrated approach to some of the world's most pressing problems pays double dividends."
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