An alarmingly high number of children are suffering the consequences of poor diets and a food system that is failing them, UNICEF warned today in a new report on children, food and nutrition, and as the United Nations and partners commemorate World Food Day.
The State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, food and nutrition finds that at least 1 in 3 children under five – or 200 million – is 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. This puts them at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, in many cases, death.
The report provides the most comprehensive assessment yet of 21st century child malnutrition in all its forms. It 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, noting that around the world:
- 149 million children are stunted, or too short for their age, including 13.1 million children in Nigeria
- 50 million children are wasted, or too thin for their height, including 2.9 million children in Nigeria
The report warns that poor eating and feeding practices start from the earliest days of a child’s life. Though breastfeeding can save lives, for example, in Nigeria, only 27 per cent of children under six months of age are exclusively breastfed and an increasing number of children are fed infant formula. This means many Nigerian children are missing out on the life-saving benefits of breastmilk which is a baby’s first vaccine and offers the best possible nutrition at the start of life.
In Nigeria, malnutrition remains a major public health and development concern:49 percent of children under five years of age are not growing well (they are either stunted, wasted or overweight). This is the second highest proportion after the Democratic Republic of Congo in the West and Central Africa region. This is partly because 34 percent of children between six months and two years of age are fed food that is not rich and diversified enough to ensure optimal growth.
As children begin transitioning to soft or solid foods around the six-month mark, too many are introduced to the wrong kind of diet, according to the report. 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.
The report also notes that climate-related disasters cause severe food crises. Drought, for example, is responsible for 80 per cent of damage and losses in agriculture globally, dramatically altering what food is available to children and families, as well as the quality and price of that food; Nigeria is also affected by climate change.
To address the growing malnutrition crisis in all its forms, UNICEF is issuing an urgent appeal to government, the private sector, donors, parents, families and businesses to help children grow healthy by:
- Investing more resources in interventions aimed at preventing malnutrition among young children and supporting treatment when prevention fails.
- Supporting nursing mothers to adequately feed and care for their children.
- 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.
- Driving food suppliers to do the right thing for children, by incentivizing the provision of healthy, convenient and affordable foods.
- 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.
- Mobilizing supportive systems – health, water and sanitation, education and social protection – to scale up nutrition results for all children.
- Collecting, analyzing and using good-quality data and evidence to guide action and track progress.
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