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Stempel College Professor to Advise WHO/FAO on New Nutrient Requirements for Infants

Dr. Cristina Palacios, associate professor of Dietetics and Nutrition at FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, is making it her life-long pursuit to help families live happy and healthy lives.

As an undergrad at Universidad Central de Venezuela, Palacios developed an interest in exploring the relationship between breastfeeding and infant weight gain.

“It’s hard to treat obesity later in life, but you can prevent it during the early stages of someone’s life,” Palacios said. “With a few health interventions, we can make a lifelong impact.”

Her interest in exploring the factors that lead to obesity grew into a full-fledged career. She graduated with a Ph.D. in Dietetics and Nutrition from Purdue University, published nearly 100 peer-reviewed health publications, and became an associate professor at Stempel College, helping to build the dietitians and nutritionists of tomorrow. Palacios also became an expert on calcium, zinc, and Vitamin D— nutrients that can help boost the immune system to fight COVID-19.

Her years of working in the dietetics and nutrition field haven’t gone unnoticed. Her latest endeavor has her collaborating with the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and top nutritionists to revise the nutrient requirements for children aged 0-36 months. This work is part of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal to address all forms of malnutrition like undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, and obesity. The review is well underway, and the first nutrients under investigation (calcium, zinc, and vitamin D) are the ones Palacios is an expert in. 

Credit: Cristina Palacios

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. These requirements provide guidance on 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. They are critical for meeting a baby’s health needs.  

“What happens in the first few years are fundamental,” said Palacios. “If we make sure infants are consuming the appropriate nutrients for their first few years, it sets up the stage for the rest of their life.”

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. However, she looks forward to the positive outcome this work will bring to the world.

“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,” said Palacios. “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.”

Go here to learn more about Stempel College’s Dietetics and Nutrition program.