In its report on children, food and nutrition, the UNICEF warns that a high number of children are suffering the consequences of poor diets that is damaging their health and a food system that is failing them. The main reasons are poverty, urbanisation, climate change and poor eating choices.

The report, titled The State of the World’s Children 2019, states that 1 in 3 children, or 200 million children, under five is malnourished and 2 in 3 children under two live on unhealthy diets. This puts them at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections, and even death.

The report provides an assessment of the ‘triple burden’ of malnutrition: undernutrition, hidden hunger caused by a lack of essential nutrients, and overweight condition among children under the age of five. It noted that across the world:

  • 149 million children are stunted, or too short for their age,
  • 50 million children are wasted, or too thin for their height,
  • 340 million children – or 1 in 2 – suffer from deficiencies in essential vitamins and nutrients such as vitamin A and iron, and
  • 40 million children are overweight or obese.

The report warns that poor eating and feeding practices start from birth, with only 42 per cent of children under six months of age being exclusively breastfed and an increasing number of children being fed infant formula. The latter has seen an increase in sales of 72 per cent between 2008 and 2013 in upper middle-income countries such as Brazil, China and Turkey.

Nearly 45 per cent of children between six months and two years of age are not fed any fruits or vegetables. Overweight and obesity levels in childhood and adolescence are increasing worldwide, contributing to a global health crisis. From 2000 to 2016, the proportion of overweight children between 5 and 19 years of age doubled from 1 in 10 to almost 1 in 5. Statistics like 42 per cent of schoolgoing adolescents in low- and middle-income countries consuming carbonated sugary soft drinks at least once a day are worrying. Inappropriate marketing and advertising, abundance of ultra-processed foods, and increasing access to fast food and highly sweetened beverages are major contributing factors.

As expected, children from the poorest and most marginalised communities suffer the most. Only 1 in 5 children aged six months to two years from the poorest families eats a healthy diet. The report also notes that climate-related disasters exacerbate food crises. For example, drought is responsible for 80 per cent of damage and losses in agriculture, dramatically affecting food availability for children and families, as well as impacting quality and price.

UNICEF is issuing an urgent appeal to governments, private sector, donors, parents, families and businesses to help children grow healthy by:

  • 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, by incentivising 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.
  • Mobilising supportive systems, such as health, water and sanitation, education and social protection, to scale up nutrition results for all children.
  • Collecting, analysing and using data and evidence to guide action and track progress.

In India, the recent Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) showed that 35 per cent of children under five are stunted, 17 per cent are wasted, and 33 per cent are underweight. Only 42 per cent of children (6 to 23 months) are fed at adequate frequency and 21 per cent are fed an adequately diverse diet. The survey also highlighted that overweight and obesity increasingly begin in childhood and urban India is moving into an unhealthy food-snacking environment.

UNICEF did not respond to CB’s questions on how the report will be used, role of the private sector, and how UNICEF India plans to partner with the Indian government on this issue.

In a press release shared with CB, Henrietta Fore, UNICEF executive director, said, ‘Despite all the technological, cultural and social advances of 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.’

‘When healthy options are available and these are affordable and desirable, then children and families make better food choices.  As the SOWC report highlights, children’s nutrition will improve significantly if there is an increase in the production and processing of healthy foods to deliver nutritious, safe, affordable and sustainable diets for all children,’ said Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF Representative in India.

The full report can be read here: https://www.unicef.org/reports/state-of-worlds-children-2019