Women and men differ in their chromosomal makeup, protein gene products, genomic imprinting, gene expression, signaling pathways, and hormonal environment. All of these necessitate caution in extrapolating information derived from biomarkers from one sex to the other. Women are particularly vulnerable at the two extremes of life. Young women and adolescents are at risk from STIs, pregnancy and unsafe abortion, while older women often have few resources and are disadvantaged with respect to men, and also are at risk of dementia and abuse, and generally poor health.
Women who are socially marginalized are more likely to die at younger ages than women who are not. Women who have substance abuse disorders, who are homeless, who are sex workers, and/or who are imprisoned have significantly shorter lives than other women. At any given age, women in these overlapping, stigmatized groups are approximately 10 to 13 times more likely to die than typical women of the same age.
Although there is evidence that interventions can address widespread malnutrition among women, there is a lack of operational research and programs to tackle the issue. There is an imperative for the nutrition community to look beyond maternal nutrition and to address women's nutrition across their lives (3). How we reach women matters, and different delivery platforms are more appropriate for some women than others. Delivery platforms for reaching young mothers are different from those for adolescents and postmenopausal women. There is a need to intentionally consider strategies that appropriately target and deliver interventions to all women. This means that nutrition researchers and practitioners need to further adapt existing strategies and modes of delivery to adequately engage women who might not be in clinic settings (78). This also requires that researchers and practitioners explore how to deliver nutrition interventions to women and at different stages of life in order to reduce inequities in the delivery of nutrition services and to reach women missed by programs focusing on maternal nutrition alone.
Not surprisingly, many integrated health services were delivered in health clinics and facilities. Many women faced barriers to health facility–based care for nutrition, such as distance, time, quality of care, stocking of supplies, and the capacity and nutrition knowledge of healthcare professionals (105, 119). These barriers need to be taken into consideration to enhance the coverage of integrated health care services. Universal health care mitigated cost barriers to seeking health care, but did not address all of the barriers noted here (105, 109, 114, 120–123).
Nutrition-sensitive approaches are difficult to link to women's nutritional status (5, 102). This is due to limited measurement of benefits to program beneficiaries, families, households, and communities, limited timeframes to evaluate long-term impact, logistical and political realities that make implementation difficult, and different priorities of different stakeholders in multisectoral programs (102). Many nutrition-sensitive approaches, as will be described, thus focus on more distal measures of impact (e.g., coverage, knowledge) and not more proximal measures of women's nutritional status (e.g., BMI, anemia status, etc.).
Our findings identified gaps and limitations in the evaluation, scope, targeting, and delivery platforms of nutrition interventions in low- and middle-income countries. First, the monitoring and evaluation of nutrition programs that reported on women's nutrition outcomes was generally inadequate. Many of the studies we identified included small-scale efficacy trials. Although there were many large-scale programs that targeted women and adolescent girls with nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive approaches, they lacked rigorous evaluation. Whether the evidence about women's outcomes was limited because they are not systematically measured or because they are not well reported is not clear. Negative results are often not published, and many evaluations of nutrition interventions that are conducted by the same groups responsible for implementing them are typically presented positively. This may have also skewed our findings. More intentional research-quality program evaluation, including of large-scale programs, would provide a stronger evidence base. Of the studies identified in this review, many reported on short-term findings such as changes in knowledge, dietary behaviors, and program coverage. They were limited in their ability to report clinical and anthropometric outcomes for women, the duration of those outcomes, and the feasibility of scaling up programs. There is also a need for systematic, long-term evaluations of interventions whose effects on nutrition outcomes are more distal (e.g., nutrition education compared with micronutrient supplementation). The effects of multisectoral interventions are even more complex to measure. However, frameworks exist to evaluate complex interventions (102) and could be utilized to evaluate the impact of interventions across the life course.