Child Nutrition : The Risks Posed By Poor Diet

The United Nations Children’s Fund in a recent study warns that poverty, urbanization, climate change and poor eating choices are resulting in unhealthy diets for many of the world’s children.

“Despite all the technological, cultural and social advances of the last few decades,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, “we have lost sight of the most basic fact that if children eat poorly, they live poorly.” Commenting on the  United Nations report entitled, “The State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, Food and Nutrition,” released on October 15, 2019 in New York, USA, the United Nations Children’s Fund chief warned that millions of children subsist on unhealthy diets for want of better options.

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“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,” Fore noted. The study found that at least 1 in 3 children under five - or over 200 million children - is either undernourished or overweight. 

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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 said.

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Because of poor diet, the study discloses, 149 million of the world’s children are stunted or too short for their ages, while 50 million children are wasted or too thin for their heights. Some 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 the earliest days of life.

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Though breastfeeding can save lives, 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 because of inappropriate marketing and weak support for the promotion of breastfeeding.

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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 made an urgent appeal to governments, the private sector, donors, parents, families and businesses to help children grow healthily.

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This can be achieved by empowering families, children and young people to demand nutritious food for example by improving nutrition education and using proven legislation, and urging food suppliers to offer incentives for the provision of healthy, convenient and affordable foods. The UN agency further recommended that healthy food environments be built 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 health, water and sanitation, education and social protection to scale up nutrition results for all children and collecting, analyzing and using good-quality data and evidence to guide action and track progress, will help to improve the situation.

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