Cristina Palacios—associate professor of dietetics and nutrition at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work—has dedicated the past 20 years to helping families live happy and healthy lives.
When she heard that the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) needed help revising nutrient requirements for children recently born to 36 months old, she jumped at the opportunity. Palacios submitted her application and was chosen based on her expertise with the nutrients calcium, zinc and Vitamin D. She knew this work could make a positive impact on a global scale.
"What happens in the first few years are fundamental," Palacios said. "If we make sure infants are consuming the appropriate nutrients for their first few years, it sets the stage for the rest of their lives."
The revision of these nutrients is part of the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goal to address all forms of malnutrition like undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency and obesity. The work is well underway, and Palacios is an expert in the first nutrients under investigation—calcium, zinc and vitamin D.
According to Palacios, due to a lack of data, most international health associations have based the infant nutrient requirements on what healthy infants consume rather than on functional outcomes related to healthy growth and development. However, as new data becomes available on infant outcomes, experts like Palacios review the information and provide recommendations for updates based on functional outcomes.
"This is a more reliable way of determining nutritional requirements for children," she said.
Nutrient requirements developed by WHO and FAO inform countries on how to set up their nutritional programs to help families improve their health. For example, this work guides how much of a nutrient should go into baby formula, which vitamins need to be added to complementary foods or be supplemented as part of a feeding program. These types of requirements are critical for meeting a baby's health needs.
Palacios shared that the rollout of the requirements could take some time—she and the team are reviewing years of evidence produced by various public health and medical experts.
"I feel very honored to make such a huge contribution. I've been doing this for 20 years and have become an expert in these three nutrients. We are even reviewing data that I've collected through my work," Palacios added. "Now I have a way to translate that research into a practical recommendation that countries could apply to their nutritional programs. It will help ensure children receive the right amount of nutrients needed to thrive."