Poor diets damaging children’s health worldwide, warns UNICEF

Poverty, urbanization, climate change and poor eating choices driving unhealthy diets

21 October 2019
SOWC 2019
UNICEF/Albania/Beci/2019

NEW YORK/Tirana 15 October 2019 – An alarmingly high number of children 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 at least 1 in 3 children under five – or 200 million – is either undernourished or overweight. 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 Albania, 11% of children under 5 years are stunted and 16% are overweight. In addition, only 29% of children between six months and 2 years are fed a diet that is diverse and has the required feeding frequency for the age of the child

“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. “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:

  • 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,
  • 40 million children are overweight or obese.

Albania as well is facing the triple burden of malnutrition where in addition to stunting and overweight, micronutrient deficiencies such as anemia and iodine deficiency still affect one in four (25 %) children under 5 years and one in two (50 %) of school age children.

The report warns that poor eating and feeding practices start from the earliest days of a child’s life. 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.

Due to strong national law for the Protection and Promotion of Breastfeeding and the marketing of Breastmilk substitutes, there has been an increase in the early initiation of breastfeeding up to 57% in Albania. There is still room for improvement as only 37 % of children are exclusively breastfeed until the 6th month of life.

As children begin transitioning to soft or solid foods around the six-month mark, too many are introduced to the wrong kind of diet, according to the report. 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.

In Albania, 40 % of children between six months and 2 years are not fed with the recommended dietary diversity from food groups that include milk products, fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat etc. 

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, the report shows 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 almost 1 in 5. Ten times more girls and 12 times more boys in this age group suffer from obesity today than in 1975.

According to an FAO and IPH study in 2018, 17% of school age children are overweight.

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.

In spite of the improving trend in national averages, disparities in child nutrition outcomes are present in Albania. Stunting among children under 5 years in the Northeastern part of the country ( Kukes, Diber) is two times higher than the national average; prevalence of children 6-23 months fed with a minimum acceptable diet raises from 23 % to 31 % from the lowest to the highest wealth quintile; anemia and iodine deficiency is higher among children in rural areas as compared to urban.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Driving food suppliers to do the right thing for children, by incentivizing the provision of healthy, convenient and affordable foods. 
  3. 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.
  4. Mobilizing supportive systems – health, water and sanitation, education and social protection – to scale up nutrition results for all children.
  5. Collecting, analyzing and using good-quality data and evidence to guide action and track progress.

UNICEF in Albania has been a long-term partner of the Government and Civil Society structures supporting Infant and Young Child Feeding. Currently focus of the programme is being expanded beyond the early years to focus on the nutrition of school age children aiming to contribute to the nutrition education and in building healthy food environments for school age children.

UNICEF would like to call upon the Albanian Parliament to support the approval of a strong Law for the Universal Salt Iodization that remains the most cost-effective public health intervention to eliminate iodine deficiency.

“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.”

Media Contacts

Anila Miria

Communication Officer

UNICEF

Tel: +35569 20 29 021

Tel: +35569 20 24 185

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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.

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