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Social and economic development: Report of working group 3*


* Working group members: THOMAS (U.S.A., Chair), IMMINK (Guatemala, Co-Chair), AFONJA (Nigeria), ALLEN (U.S.A.), GALAL (Egypt), PELTO (U.S.A.).

1. Introduction
2. Designs for studying the effects of low energy intake on behavior
3. Types of variables
4. Proposed future activities with IDECG support

1. Introduction

The currently available data on chronic energy deficit suggest that there is a partitioning of effects between biological and behavioral outcomes. While much remains to be learned about the nature of this partitioning, it is clear that further work on the behavioral consequences of low intake is critical, given the continuing pervasiveness of this problem.

The nature of the behavioral effects, with their ramified socioeconomic consequences, is such that research on this important topic is most appropriately pursued using designs that are community-based and focused on multiple social units. We feel that inquiry into social behavior is necessary because it provides the critical link between the biological consequences and policy implementation.

In the past it has often been the case that social policy addressing the issue of low dietary intakes has not moved forward because of lack of evidence concerning the social and economic implications of chronic energy deficit. Moreover, data have not addressed specific issues that are of relevance to particular planning ministries. For example, to be useful to a minister of education, links of chronically low intake to specific educational concerns (such as attendance, classroom behavior, student achievement, teacher job satisfaction, and other features that may be affected by low intake) must be documented.

Scientists working in the area of nutrition and health have often assumed that the responsibility of moving toward policy implementation rests on their research perspectives. However, the perspective of the community can be a powerful tool in helping to bring about necessary changes. Therefore, community perspectives and direct community involvement in problem definition and effective solution implementation should be part of policy-oriented research activities.

2. Designs for studying the effects of low energy intake on behavior

2.1. Naturalistic designs
2.2. Experimental designs

There are several alternative designs that can be utilized to assess the relationship of energy intake to behavior and to examine the socioeconomic consequences at the level of the individual, the household and the community. In a strict sense, it may be argued, as the anthropologist Edward Sapir suggested many years ago, that it is only the individual who thinks, feels, eats and acts - that behavior is a property of individuals.

However, we are concerned here not only with the consequences of chronically low energy intake for the individual, but also with the consequences for the organization and function of households and communities in which the individual members are subjected to low intake. Thus, the research design selected must permit assessment at three levels, which is to say that the study should have the community, the household, and the individual as units of analysis.

The behavioral impact of low intake can be examined in terms of 1 ) the effects of short-term deficits of energy intake relative to usual intake/expenditure patterns, or 2) the long-term effects of chronically low intake. Since energy deficits in relation to expenditure cannot be maintained over long periods of time, the focus on long-term consequences is essentially an assessment of the effects of achieving and maintaining energy balance at low levels of energy intake. The designs that follow can be used either for the purpose of assessing the behavioral and socioeconomic consequences of achieving energy balance at low levels or identifying short-term behavioral responses.

There are two general types of designs that are applicable: "observation studies" and "intervention studies". In the former type, the independent variable(s) represent some dimensions of the economic, social and cultural environment of the household and are measured as a phenomenon outside of investigator control. In contrast, "experimental studies" are characterized by a direct manipulation of the independent variable(s).

2.1. Naturalistic designs

There are two forms of naturalistic designs that can be applied to the issue of the "consequences of low-level energy balance" question. One design is based on identifying the distribution of levels of intake in a population. Individual intake is determined, and individuals and households are classified by levels of intake. Communities can be similarly classified by the proportion of low-intake individuals/households.

Data collection and analysis can be based either on the full "intake/expenditure" distribution, or subjects (households) can be selected out of this distribution based on specific characteristics.

A second type of naturalistic study could be termed "natural experiment", for it is based on identifying events or conditions that alter the energy balance, either by increasing or decreasing intake and/or energy demands. In either case, the term "natural experiment" is used to emphasize the fact that the investigator does not manipulate the energy variable, but takes advantage of conditions that potentially alter energy balance. The determination that the energy balance is shifted to a different level is a primary requirement of this design.

Studies that make use of the distribution in the population assume that the patterns that emerge have some time depth, that they reflect "long-term consequences" of low intake. On the other hand, studies that utilize "natural experiments" (e.g., outmigration by male household members, short-term variations in food availability or labor demand) require a longer time frame for data collection, as do studies based on experimental designs.

2.2. Experimental designs

The experimental manipulation of the independent variable can theoretically focus either on shifting intake or shifting expenditure. However, a primary manipulation of one component may produce a secondary level manipulation of the other.

2.2.1. Supplementation studies

The classic approach is a supplementation study, in which an attempt is made to shift intake by providing additional calories to the experimental group in the study. Follow-up studies of previous supplementation studies, such as those currently being undertaken at INCAP, also provide an opportunity to assess long-term consequences of higher levels of energy intake during early childhood.

2.2.2. Community development as an experimental intervention

While supplementation studies are an intervention on the intake side of the energy balance equation, an alternative design is to produce a change in the energy expenditure of the study population.

Typically, chronically low levels of intake occur in communities where the demands for energy are relatively high and where even the provision of basic necessities (including food, water and fuel) require considerable physical activity. To the extent that energy-saving (labor-saving) interventions become institutionalized as a permanent condition in the community, the experiment avoids the ethical problems that pervade not only experimental supplementation but also naturalistic designs, in which subjects typically receive little or nothing in return for their participation in the research endeavor.

As community development personnel know well and public health professionals are increasingly aware, interventions that are imposed or brought into a community by external agencies are rarely highly effective. Community participation is fundamental to successful community development. Thus, if an experimental design based on changing energy demand is utilized, community participation is an essential methodology for such a study.

This participation should include: a) self-assessment of problems related to chronic energy deficiency, b) designing solutions in the form of social developmental actions, and c) validation of the solutions, which in turn leads to on-going adjustment in program design and execution by the community. An explicit methodology for this level of direct community involvement needs to be developed as a prerequisite to the implementation of a study and could profitably be the subject of a workshop supported by IDECG.

An effective design that utilizes a change in the energy requirement to assess behavioral responses to chronically low intake must be able to identify the separate and interactive effects of increased time availability and increased energy availability. Focus on specific domains of behavior (e.g., mother-child interaction) may be an area in which the time versus energy issue may be separable.

3. Types of variables

The consequences of a change in dietary energy intake should be observable in one or more of the following dimensions:

(a) Body size and composition
(b) Time allocation to different activities
(c) Intensity of activity

The measurement of these changes can be classified in terms of the following taxonomy:

1. Intermediate behavioral variables
2. Intermediate biological variables
3. Outcome variables

(a) Investigator-determined
(b) Community- and subject-determined

The types of variables that can be measured within this taxonomy include the following:

1. Intermediate behavioral variables

1.1. Activity patterns (time-shares among activities classified by two dimensions)

(a) Activity type
(b) Energy cost

1.1.1. Instrumental (task-oriented)

- market production
- home production
- education and training (human capital formation)

1.1.2. Expressive (relational)

- leisure time
- social interaction

1.2. Social support network
1.3. Intrahousehold economic roles and decision-making

2. Intermediate biological variables

2.1. Body composition/growth and development
2.2. Energy intake
2.3. Health status

3. Outcome variables

3.1. Investigator-determined (etic)

3.1.1. Economic
Household income (monetary and non-monetary) expenditures (secondary effects, e.g., gardening; home improvement)

3.1.2. Psychological: cognitive and psycho-motor development and social-emotional functioning

3.2. Community- and subject-determined (emic)

3.2.1. Individual level
3.2.2. Community level

4. External (community) variables

4.1. Economic; e.g., market prices of final and intermediate goods
4.2. Community infra-structure (autonomous or as a secondary effect)

It should be clear that the identified outcome variables may have secondary or multiplier effects (e.g., on the intermediate variables of energy intake, health status). The study design should fully anticipate measurement of the secondary effects over time.

In order to define what community/subject (culturally or emically) determined outcomes should be included, the study design must anticipate a period of interaction with community members before actual, pre-intervention measurements are initiated.

4. Proposed future activities with IDECG support

1. Commissioning of a review paper on long-term social consequences for individuals, households and communities of chronic energy deficits. This paper should review the effects on groups living under persistent CED as well as those exposed to fluctuating levels of CED.

2. Workshop on direct community-involvement models in problem-solving related to CED.

3. Pilot studies to develop measurement methodology and obtain a cross-cultural list of perceived needs and desired outcomes by target populations. Consideration should be given to collaboration with the network of investigators currently involved in UNU Nutrition and Primary Care Activities.

4. Inventory of existing data sets that lend themselves to re-analysis under one of the proposed designs and provision of funds for computer analysis.

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