UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica (File photo)

Childhood nutrition is a dietary issue with complex health consequences — but a growing body of medical experts, researchers and advocacy groups also see economic implications.

They point out that children whose nutritional needs are not met are more likely to have difficulties focusing and more likely to miss school days for illness.

“This all leads to poorer school performance, which leads to lower income earning potential as adults,” said pediatric specialist Tanya Arora, co-director of the Global Health Education Programs at the UCLA Center for World Health. “As pediatricians, parents and advocates, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and others on how we can support children in having the right nutrition, right from the start, to reach their full potential.”

That education continues at 6:30 p.m. March 30 at UCLA Medical Center, 1250 16th St., in Santa Monica, where Arora and others will take part in a public forum about early childhood nutrition.

The free event will be highlighted by Arora’s informal interview of Heidi Murkoff, author of the bestselling “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” pregnancy guide.

“The health, wellbeing and economic success of this nation, and countries around the world, is inherently linked to the nutritional status of our moms and moms-to-be, and our babies and toddlers,” Murkoff said in a release. “It’s time for us, a society that focuses on family values, to truly value families — and to prioritize nourishing the next generation.”

Arora’s chat with Murkoff will follow an introduction from UCLA Center for World Health director Tom Coates and remarks from Lucy Martinez Sullivan of 1,000 Days, an advocacy group that promotes improved nutrition for mothers and children in the time between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday. The evening will wrap up with an audience Q&A session.

“Optimizing early childhood nutrition is essential to ensuring healthy physical and mental development,” Arora said. “If children don’t get the right nutrition during their first two years of life, the damage done to their physical and mental health is irreversible.”

Arora said malnutrition refers not only to undernutrition but also to poor nutrition, which includes high-calorie, low-nutrient diets. One in four U.S. preschoolers is overweight and one in eight is obese, she said, placing them at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions.

“We tend to treat malnutrition only after it has occurred,” she said. “We respond to famine by providing food aid; we respond to obesity with exercise and nutritional programs. While these responses are necessary, it is important to note that malnutrition in the developed and developing world are preventable problems.

“Investing in our children early on in their childhood can allow us to keep them healthy and optimize their physical and mental development to allow them to reach their full potential.”

Arora added that children who do not receive appropriate calories, vitamins and micronutrients are at increased risk for infection.

But she believes solutions for improved childhood nutrition, both in the U.S. and around the world, are within reach.

“We know that poverty and income inequality exist,” she said. “We know that there are food deserts where parents cannot buy fresh fruits and vegetables in their neighborhoods. Globally, we know that there are seasonal hunger gaps when food will not grow, and we know that foods of lower nutritional quality are cheaper because we subsidize these foods. Improving childhood nutrition is an achievable goal.”

For more information, or to register for the event, visit birthplace.uclahealth.org.

Valet parking at the medical center costs $12. Tokens for the parking structure at 1311 16th St., are available for $5 at the main security desk. Other pay-to-park facilities can be found at 1260 15th St., and 1245 16th St.

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, jeff@www.smdp.com or on Twitter.

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