In recent decades, the amount of calories available to the average Nigerian on a daily basis has increased significantly. Despite this progress, however, the country continues to battle high levels of malnutrition of varying types. According to a recent research brief, a lack of dietary diversity and dietary quality may be to blame.
Nigeria currently faces a triple burden of malnutrition: child stunting, anemia (iron deficiency), and adult overweight and obesity. In 2018, an estimated 36.8 percent of children under five years of age suffered from stunting. In urban areas, children under five also saw a significant increase in rates of anemia between 2010 and 2018, from 55.2 percent of the population to 62 percent. Simultaneous with these forms of undernutrition, Nigerian adults in both urban and rural areas experienced increased rates of overweight and obesity. In 2018, obesity among adult women reached 14.5 percent in urban areas and 5.8 percent in rural areas, up from 9.6 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively, in 2010.
Driving this growing malnutrition is an overreliance on staple foods within the Nigerian diet, the brief’s authors say. In both rural and urban areas and across all income levels, households consume too many calories from staple foods – namely, cassava, yam, rice, maize, and sorghum – and far too few calories from non-staple foods – fruits and vegetables, pulses, and meat and dairy products. In fact, the share of non-staple calories in Nigeria’s national food consumption basket is lower than the national average in all other developing countries worldwide.
Experts recommend that only about 34 percent of a person’s daily total calorie intake should come from staple foods. In urban areas of Nigeria, however, high-income households get about 52 percent of their total calories from staple foods; that number is 66 percent for low-income households. The situation is even worse in rural areas, where high-income households get 60 percent of their daily calories from staples and low-income households consume as much as 76 percent staple foods. This overreliance on staple foods can lead to micronutrient deficiencies, reduced physical and cognitive development in children, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) related to overweight and obesity, including diabetes and cardiac disease.
In addition, increasing incomes appear to have generated further unhealthy eating patterns. The study found that in both urban and rural Nigeria, the increase in overall calorie consumption in recent decades has stemmed mostly from increased consumption of fats and sugars. In other words, as incomes grew, people appear to have diversified their diets by including more expensive – and less healthy – processed foods like desserts and sweetened beverages, rather than increasing consumption of high-value nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables.
What can policymakers do to help shift these patterns toward more balanced, nutritious diets? The brief provides several recommendations, including:
1. focus interventions on improving diets rather than simply reducing the physical impacts of malnutrition, such as child stunting;
2. enact nutrition-sensitive policies and programs that address the underlying causes of malnutrition, including poverty, food insecurity, and lack of access to healthy foods;
3. engage in further research into the nutrition impacts and scalability potential of agricultural programs like biofortification and home gardens;
4. properly assess the impact of various trade policies, such as food import bans and production incentives, on nutrition; and
5. adopt a food systems framework that looks beyond production and takes into account food transport and trade, processing, and retail.
The study behind this brief was conducted as part of the Feed the Future Nigeria Agricultural Policy Project through the Nigeria Strategy Support Program managed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The work was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH)