A flagship report by UNICEF has warned that the number of children worldwide suffering as a result of poor diets and a failing food system is alarmingly high. The 2019 edition of The State of the World’s Children (SOWC) found that one in three children is either undernourished or underweight and faces lifelong problems as a result.
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Almost two-thirds of infants aged six months to two years are not fed a diet that supports their growing bodies and brains, according to the UN assessment. As a consequence, they are at risk of poor brain development and learning ability, reduced immunity and infection and, in a lot of cases, death
"If children eat poorly, they live poorly," said UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore, as she unveiled the first State of the World's Children report in 20 years to focus on food and nutrition. "We are losing ground in the fight for healthy diets.”
A failing food system is at the heart of the problem
At the center of the problem is a failing food system that cannot provide the diets children need to grow properly.
Millions of children subsist on an unhealthy diet because they simply do not have a better choice. The way we understand and respond to malnutrition needs to change: It is not just about getting children enough to eat; it is above all about getting them the right food to eat. That is our common challenge today.”
Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director
The report describes a triple burden of malnutrition – undernutrition, a lack of essential nutrients and overweight among children aged under five years.
"This triple burden - undernutrition, a lack of crucial micronutrients, obesity - is increasingly found in the same country, sometimes in the same neighborhood, and often in the same household," says Victor Aguayo, head of UNICEF's nutrition program.
"A mother who is overweight or obese can have children who are stunted or wasted."
The report states that around the world 149 million children are too short for their age, 50 million are too thin for their height, 320 million (half) are deficient in essential nutrients and 40 million are overweight or obese.
The problem starts early on in life
The report says that poor diet and feeding begin early on in children’s lives, with only 42% under the age of six months being exclusively breastfed and an increasing number being fed milk-based formula.
Formula sales increased by 72% between 2008 and 2013 in upper-middle-income countries, mainly as a result of inappropriate marketing and weak policies to promote breastfeeding.
As children are moved onto soft or solid foods at around six months, too many are introduced to the wrong foods, with 45% aged six months to two years not being fed any fruit or vegetables, according to the report, and almost 60% not eating dairy, fish, meat or eggs.
As children age, they get exposed to unhealthy foods
As children get older, they are exposed to unhealthy foods, which is mainly driven by inappropriate advertising, the availability of ultra-processed foods and increasing access to fast foods and sweetened drinks.
Forty-two percent of school-going teenagers in low- and middle-income countries drink carbonated sugary drinks at least once a day and 46% consume fast food at least once a week. In high-income countries the corresponding figures are 62% and 49%.
The prevalence of childhood and adolescent overweight and obesity is increasing across the globe, with it having doubled among children aged five to 19 years between 2000 and 2016.
There needs to be a focus on obesity before it is too late. Unless you deal with it in a preventative way, you're going to struggle to fix it later on."
Brian Keeley, Editor-in-Chief of the Report
The world's poorest communities are the most affected
The greatest burden of malnutrition is seen among children and adolescents from the poorest and most marginalized communities. Only 20% of infants aged six months to 2 years from the poorest households have a diet diverse enough to support healthy growth.
The report also notes that climate change is causing severe crises, with amplifying droughts responsible for more than 80% of damage and loss in agriculture.
"The impacts of climate change are completely transforming the food that is available and that can be consumed," said Aguayo.
Making sure every child has access to a healthy diet must become a "political priority" if widespread malnutrition is to be conquered, especially in developing countries, said the report.
To tackle this growing malnutrition crisis, UNICEF is urgently calling on governments, the private sector, donors, parents, families and businesses to help children become healthy.
“This is not a battle we can win on our own. We need governments, the private sector and civil society to prioritize child nutrition and work together to address the causes of unhealthy eating in all its forms,” concludes Fore.