Poor diets damaging children’s health worldwide and in Afghanistan, warns UNICEF
Poverty, natural disaster and poor eating choices drive unhealthy diets 1 in 3 children under five is malnourished; in Afghanistan, 4 of every 10 children under five are stunted (Afghanistan Health Survey 2018)
KABUL, 15 October 2019 – An alarmingly high number of children around the world and in Afghanistan 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.
The State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, food and nutrition finds that, globally, 149 million children under five are stunted, or short for their age. 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.
In Afghanistan, the nutritional situation is even more concerning. Every year, 2 million children under five are affected by acute malnutrition, of whom 600,000 suffer from the most severe form of undernutrition and are 11 times more likely to die than their peers. (Humanitarian Response Plan for Severity Ranking for People (HRP) in need study 2018)
“The effects of a poor diet last through generations,” said Abubakar Kampo, UNICEF Afghanistan Country Representative. “We see this in Afghanistan where children who are stunted perform poorly at school and are more likely to experience other health problems. Anaemia in adolescent girls reduces physical and mental capacity and threatens future motherhood. Malnourished or anaemic mothers have weaker babies who are more vulnerable to stunting. Breaking this inter-generational cycle by ensuring that families access and choose the right food in the right amount at the right age is the nutritional challenge of our time.”
The report provides a comprehensive assessment of child malnutrition, describing how undernutrition, hidden hunger caused by a lack of essential nutrients, and overweight among children under the age of five affect millions around the world.
In Afghanistan, poor eating and feeding practices starting from the earliest days of life are major contributors to poor nutrition. Though breastmilk contains all the nutrition babies need for the first six months of life, only half of women practice exclusive breastfeeding for children in this age group (Demographic Health Survey DHS 2015).
As children begin transitioning to soft or solid foods around the six-month mark, too many are introduced to the wrong or insufficient food. Worldwide, nearly 45 per cent of children between six months and two years of age are not fed any fruits or vegetables. In Afghanistan, only 16 per cent of children receive a minimum acceptable diet (Demographic Health Survey DHS 2015). These practices are influenced by cultural norms, food insecurity, poverty, and lack of access to services.
Today, a third of adolescent girls in Afghanistan are anaemic. Many report eating meals with little or no fruits and vegetables even when these are in season. Meanwhile, highly processed foods are becoming widely available, leading to increasingly unhealthy diets. Thus, there is an urgent need to improve the availability, affordability and awareness of nutritious food and healthy practices, including exclusive breastfeeding, amongst communities.
The greatest burden of malnutrition falls upon the poorest and most marginalized communities, including those affected by conflict. The report also notes that climate-related disasters cause severe food crises. Drought, for example, is responsible for severe losses in agriculture, dramatically altering the availability, quality and price of food. In 2018, 18 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces were affected by drought, with 13.5 million people facing crisis levels of food insecurity.
To address Afghanistan’s growing undernutrition crisis, UNICEF urges governments, the private sector, donors, parents and communities:
- Empowering families, children and young people to demand nutritious food and to practice healthy habits through communication, education and mobilization.
- Promoting healthy food environments and strengthening food systems so communities and individuals can access and choose nutritious foods for themselves and their families.
- Strengthening support systems in health, food, water and sanitation, and social protection to reduce undernutrition risks due to unavailability of healthy or fortified foods, diseases such as diarrhoea, and poverty.
- Integrating nutritional services into other sectors such as health and education, directing their energies and resources towards a shared goal of preventing undernutrition.
- Reducing the risk of undernutrition and hidden hunger amongst the most marginalized children and women by bridging between humanitarian assistance and development, and by empowering communities to withstand disasters and sudden shocks.
- Committing to funding and carrying out actions to support nutrition until the goal to end all forms of undernutrition by 2030 is achieved.
- Collecting, analyzing and using good-quality data and evidence to guide action and track progress.
“Afghanistan has already shown its strong commitment to children’s future by developing strong nutrition policies and plans such as the National Nutrition Strategy and Afghanistan Food Security and Nutrition Agenda,” said Kampo. “Now it is time to invest in making this commitment a reality and to ensuring that every child, adolescent and mother accesses a healthy diet, and in doing so, breaks the cycle of undernutrition.”
UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.
For more information about UNICEF and its work for children in Afghanistan, visit www.unicef.org/afghanistan.