In a major report, the UN agency pronounces that 227 million children under the age of 5 worldwide are underweight or overweight due to several factors.
Undernourished or overweight: one in three children under 5 does not receive the food they need to grow well, UNICEF warns in a comprehensive report published on Tuesday 15 October. “Many countries thought they had referred malnutrition to the past, but they find they have a very important new problem,” Victor Aguayo, head of UNICEF’s nutrition program, told AFP in an interview.
Of the 676 million children under five living in the world in 2018, about 227 million or about a third were underweight or overweight, and 340 million suffered from nutritional deficiencies, according to the UN Agency for the Protection of Children.
“The way we understand and respond to malnutrition must change: It’s not just about giving children enough to eat, it’s about providing them with good nutrition,” says Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Director, in a press release.
Malnutrition, a big problem
Malnutrition is still at the forefront and affects about four times as many infants as obesity. Although the number of children not receiving enough food to meet their nutritional needs has fallen significantly (-40% between 1990 and 2005), this remains a major problem for many countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
For example, 149 million children worldwide are too small for their age (atrophied by chronic malnutrition) and 50 million too skinny for their size (atrophied by acute malnutrition or nutrient uptake problems).
UNICEF also focuses on the 340 million children who suffer from “hidden hunger” because they receive enough calories but do not have the minerals and vitamins necessary for their development (vitamins A and C, iron, iodine, especially due to the lack of fruit, vegetables and animal products). However, these deficiencies can have physical (poor immune system, vision or hearing problems) and intellectual consequences. This phenomenon begins at an early age due to very little breastfeeding and a diet with inadequate nutrition, UNICEF notes.
Fast food and poverty
Easy access to high-calorie but low-nutrient foods has caused obesity to develop rapidly, affecting 40 million young children, including in poor countries. Although this problem was almost unknown in low-income countries in 1990 (only 3% of countries in this category had more than 10% overweight infants), three quarters of them now face this problem.
“In the past, we thought that obesity was the malnutrition of the rich, but that is no longer the case,” says Victor Aguayo, a healthcare physician. “Different forms of malnutrition increasingly exist in the same country and often in the same household” (e.g. with an overweight mother and a malnourished child) or even “in the same individual in different stages in his life”, whereby child malnutrition is a risk factor for overweight and obesity in adulthood, he adds.
This situation is closely linked to poverty: It mainly affects poor countries and vulnerable populations in rich countries, as UNICEF also stresses. To improve this situation, the organization encourages governments to promote and make affordable the food necessary for a balanced diet. It also calls for stronger regulation of advertising for infant formula and sugary beverages and for “easy to understand” nutrition labeling of foods so that consumers can make better choices for their children’s health and for themselves.