Poor diets are damaging children’s health worldwide, UNICEF finds
The Sector > Quality > In The Field > Poor diets are damaging children’s health worldwide, UNICEF finds

Poor diets are damaging children’s health worldwide, UNICEF finds

by Freya Lucas

October 24, 2019

An ‘alarmingly high’ number of children are suffering the consequences of poor diets and a food system that is failing them, UNICEF warned recently in its The State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, food and nutrition report.


Disappointingly, Australia ranks ninth in the top ten of 41 OECD and EU countries when it comes to the percentage of children and adolescents aged 5 to 19 years who are overweight, and this figure has risen 35.1 per cent since 1990.


From a global perspective, the report found that at least 1 in 3 children under five years of age – or 200 million – are either undernourished or overweight. Almost 2 in 3 children between six months and two years of age are not fed food that supports their rapidly growing bodies and brains, putting them at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, in many cases, death.


Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, said the findings indicate that although there have been many technological, cultural and social advances in the last few decades, “we have lost sight of this most basic fact: If children eat poorly, they live poorly”. 


“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.”


Dubbed the “most comprehensive assessment yet” of 21st century child malnutrition in all its forms, the report describes a ‘triple burden’ of malnutrition: undernutrition, hidden hunger caused by a lack of essential nutrients, and overweight among children under the age of five. 


Key findings from the global report included; 

  • 149 million children are stunted, or too short for their age, from poor nutrition 

  • 50 million children are wasted, or too thin for their height

  • 340 million children – one in every two – suffer from deficiencies in essential vitamins and nutrients such as vitamin A and iron

  • 40 million children are overweight or obese. 

Poor eating and feeding practices, report authors said, start from the earliest days of a child’s life. Only 42 per cent of children under six months of age are exclusively breastfed, and an increasing number of children are fed infant formula. Sales of milk-based formula grew by 72 per cent between 2008 and 2013 in upper middle-income countries such as Brazil, China and Turkey, largely due to inappropriate marketing and weak policies and programmes to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.


When children begin to transition to soft or solid foods around the six-month mark, too many are introduced to the wrong kind of diet, according to the report. Worldwide, close to 45 per cent of children between six months and two years of age are not fed any fruits or vegetables. Nearly 60 per cent do not eat any eggs, dairy, fish or meat.


As children grow older, their exposure to unhealthy food becomes alarming, driven largely by inappropriate marketing and advertising, the abundance of ultra-processed foods in cities but also in remote areas, and increasing access to fast food and highly sweetened beverages, authors noted. 


The greatest burden of malnutrition in all its forms is shouldered by children and adolescents from the poorest and most marginalised communities, the report stated. Only 1 in 5 children aged six months to two years from the poorest households eats a sufficiently diverse diet for healthy growth. Even in high-income countries such as the UK, the prevalence of children and young people who are overweight is more than twice as high in the poorest areas as in the richest areas.


Climate related disasters also impact on the availability and cost of food, the authors discussed, saying that drought, for example, is responsible for 80 per cent of damage and losses in agriculture, dramatically altering what food is available to children and families, as well as the quality and price of that food.


To address the growing malnutrition crisis in all its forms, UNICEF issued an urgent appeal to governments, the private sector, donors, parents, families and businesses to help children grow healthy by:


  1. Empowering families, children and young people to demand nutritious food, including by improving nutrition education and using proven legislation – such as sugar taxes – to reduce demand for unhealthy foods.


  1. Driving food suppliers to do the right thing for children, by incentivizing the provision of healthy, convenient and affordable foods. 


  1. Building healthy food environments for children and adolescents by using proven approaches, such as accurate and easy-to-understand labelling and stronger controls on the marketing of unhealthy foods.


  1. Mobilising supportive systems – health, water and sanitation, education and social protection – to scale up nutrition results for all children. 


  1. Collecting, analysing and using good-quality data and evidence to guide action and track progress. 


“We are losing ground in the fight for healthy diets,” said Ms Fore. “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.”

To read the report, please see here

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