New Delhi (NVI): An alarmingly high number of children– around 200 million — are suffering from the consequences of poor diets and a food system that is failing them, the UNICEF warned today in its State of the World’s Children (SOWC) 2019, report.
Meanwhile, recently in India, the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) conducted a survey which showed that around 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 only 21 per cent are fed an adequately diverse diet. Timely complementary feeding is initiated for only 53 per cent of infants aged 6-8 months.
The report finds that urbanization, climate change, poor eating and feeding practices start from the earliest days of a child’s life driving unhealthy diets.
As per the report, around 200 million children under five are either undernourished or overweight. While two-thirds of children between six months and two years of age are not fed food that nourishes their growth. This puts them at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, in many cases, death.
“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,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.
The director further added, “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.”
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, approximately 149 million children are stunted, or too short for their age, 50 million children are too thin for their height, whereas 340 million children suffer from deficiencies in essential vitamins and nutrients such as vitamin A and iron and 40 million children are overweight or obese.
“Though breastfeeding can save lives, for example, 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,” said in a report.
According to the report, “As children begin transitioning to soft or solid foods around the six-month mark, too many are introduced to the wrong kind of diet. 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.”
The report further says, “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.”
For example, it showed that 42 per cent of school-going adolescents in low- and middle-income countries consume carbonated sugary soft drinks at least once a day and 46 per cent eat fast food at least once a week. Those rates go up to 62 per cent and 49 per cent, respectively, for adolescents in high-income countries.
As a result, overweight and obesity levels in childhood and adolescence are increasing worldwide. From 2000 to 2016, the proportion of overweight children between 5 and 19 years of age doubled from 1 in 10 to 1 in 5. Ten times more girls and 12 times more boys in this age group suffer from obesity today than in 1975.
The greatest burden of malnutrition in all its forms is shouldered by children and adolescents from the poorest and most marginalized communities, the report notes. 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 overweight is more than twice as high in the poorest areas as in the richest areas.
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, dramatically altering what food is available to children and families, as well as the quality and price of that food.
To address this growing malnutrition crisis in all its forms, UNICEF is issuing an urgent appeal to governments, the private sector, donors, parents, families and businesses to help children grow healthy by empowering families, children and young people to demand nutritious food, driving food suppliers to do the right thing for children, building healthy food environments for children and adolescents by using proven approaches, Mobilizing supportive systems and collecting, analyzing and using good-quality data to guide action and track progress.
“We are losing ground in the fight for healthy diets,” said 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,” Fore added.