Young children’s diets show no improvement in last decade, a situation which could "worsen considerably" under COVID-19 – UNICEF

During crucial period when children begin to transition to solid foods, only one in three children are fed diverse diet to grow well

22 September 2021
Soigner la malnutrition
© UNICEF/UN0496575/Andrianantenaina

NEW YORK, 22 September, 2021 - Children under the age of 2 are not receiving essential foods or nutrients for their development and growth, thus irreversibly harming their development, according to a report released by UNICEF today.

In ‘L’échec dans l’assiette ? La crise de l’alimentation dans la petite enfanceFed to Fail? The crisis of children's diets in early life, released ahead of the United Nations (UN) Food Systems Summit this week, UNICEF warns: rising poverty, inequalities, conflicts, climate-related disasters and health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic are contributing to a real nutrition crisis among the youngest that has shown little improvement in the last decade.

"The report's conclusions are clear: even though they are at a crucial stage in their development, millions of young children are not receiving adequate nutrition," said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. "Poor nutritional intake during the first two years of life can irreversibly harm the development of their growing body and brain, thus impacting their education, employment prospects and future. This has been known for years, yet little progress has been made in ensuring that young children eat age-appropriate, nutritious and safe foods. Besides, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is likely to make the situation worse."

According to a study of 91 countries, it appears that only half of children aged 6-23 months are being fed the minimum recommended number of meals a day, and just a third of them consume the minimum number of food groups they need to grow well. Further analysis of 50 countries based on available statistics shows that these poor feeding patterns have persisted for the past ten years.

In Madagascar, 79 per cent of children aged 6-23 months do not receive a minimum acceptable diet. As many as two in five children suffer from chronic malnutrition, a situation made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and acute food insecurity in the south of the country, increasing the number of children who do not have access to adequate food they need to develop normally.

In a context where COVID-19 continues to disrupt essential services and generate more poverty, the report shows that the pandemic is affecting the way families feed their children. For example, a survey conducted among urban households in Jakarta revealed that half of families had to reduce their nutritious food purchases. As a result, the proportion of children consuming the recommended minimum number of food groups fell by a third between 2018 and 2020.

Inadequate diets and feeding practices during childhood left children scarred for life. Insufficient intake of nutrient-rich foods (vegetables, fruits, eggs, fish and meat), which are necessary for the growth of young children, may cause problems in development, learning, immune defences, increased infections, or even death.

Children under the age of 2 are the most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition - stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiency, overweight and obesity - caused by poor nutrition. And the reason is that during this period, they mostly need for essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life.

UNICEF estimates that, globally, more than half of children under 5 years of age affected by wasting – nearly 23 million children – are in the 0-2 age group, and the prevalence of stunting increases rapidly between 6 months and 2 years of age, as diet is not sufficient to meet their increasing nutritional needs.

According to the report, children aged 6-23 months living in rural areas or from poor households are significantly more likely to be fed poorer nutrition compared to children living in urban areas or from wealthier backgrounds. For example, in 2020, the proportion of children who received a minimum dietary diversity was twice as high in urban areas (39 per cent) than in rural areas (23 per cent).

To ensure all children benefit from nutritious, safe and affordable food, UNICEF calls on governments, donors, civil society organizations and development actors to work together to transform food, health and social protection systems by leading key measures, including:

  • Strengthening the availability and affordability of nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish, meat and fortified foods, by encouraging their production, dissemination and distribution;
  • Putting in place national standards and legislation to protect young children from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages and to end harmful marketing practices targeting children and families.
  • Increasing the attractiveness of nutritious and safe foods through the use of multiple communication channels, including digital media, so as to provide parents and children with consistent and easy-to-understand information.

The report emphasizes that progress is possible with investments. For example, almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of children aged 6-23 months living in Latin America and the Caribbean are fed a minimum dietary diversity, while this proportion rises to less than one in four children in East and Southern Africa (24 per cent), West and Central Africa (21 per cent) and South Asia (19 per cent). In all regions, investments are needed to ensure that all children benefit from the diverse diets they need to prevent all forms of malnutrition, and grow, develop and learn in the best possible way.

"Calories alone are not enough for the survival or development of children," said the Executive Director. "Only by joining forces with governments, the private sector, civil society, humanitarian and development partners and families, we can transform food systems and ensure nutritious, safe, healthy and affordable food for every child. The upcoming UN Food Systems Summit provides a valuable opportunity to lay the foundation for setting up global food systems that can meet the needs of all children."

Media contacts

Timothy James Irwin
Chief of Communication
UNICEF Madagascar

A propos d'UNICEF

L’UNICEF travaille dans les endroits les plus inhospitaliers du monde pour atteindre les enfants les plus défavorisés. Dans 190 pays et territoires, nous travaillons pour chaque enfant, partout, afin de construire un monde meilleur pour tous. 

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