Too little or too much: more than 16 million children are poorly nourished in the Middle East and North Africa

Region is now second in the world for overweight children

20 October 2019
a loaf of bread

AMMAN, 20 October 2019 – Despite some improvements including progress in addressing under-nutrition, overall trends in children’s nutrition have either begun to stagnate or have worsened since the year 2000 in the Middle East and North Africa.

  • More than 16 million children under five years old do not enjoy nutritious food.
  • Across the region, 5.4 million children are overweight - up from 3.4 million in 2000 - placing the Middle East and North Africa second in the world for overweight children.
  • Nearly 11 million children suffer from chronic or acute malnutrition, including over 7 million stunted children and 3.7 million acutely malnourished children.
  • Children suffering from acute malnutrition are 11 times more likely to die without treatment than their well-nourished peers.

The impact of conflict is dire: more children now suffer from different forms of malnutrition since the start of conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan:

  • Nearly one third of all pregnant and nursing mothers in northwest Syria are anemic, with serious consequences for giving birth and on their children’s physical and mental development;
  • In Sudan, rising food prices are leading to poor nutrition among children: an estimated 2.3 million children suffer from malnutrition in the country and half of all deaths of children under five years-old are directly related to malnutrition;
  • In Yemen, an estimated 2 million children are acutely malnourished, including nearly 360,000 children under five years-old suffering from severe acute malnutrition, fighting to survive.

“Children from the poorest and most marginalized communities account for the largest share of all children suffering from malnutrition,” said Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “This perpetuates poverty across generations. Children who are hungry are unable to concentrate in school or learn and those who are stunted have lower earning potential as adults because of developmental deficiencies.”

Children in the region also suffer from ‘hidden hunger’ or micronutrient deficiencies from poor diets that threaten children’s survival, growth and brain development as well as overweight.

“Staple foods with low nutritious value, highly processed “junk” foods, sugary drinks, food fortification policies, labelling and marketing practices - are failing to provide healthy diets for children, in poor and wealthy countries alike. As a result, more children are not eating healthy and are either undernourished or overweight in a number of countries in the region" added Chaiban.

Improving children’s nutrition requires food systems to deliver safe, nutritious, affordable and sustainable diets for all children. Children’s nutrition in the Middle East and North Africa region will only improve through the concerted efforts of governments, the private sectors, donors, parents and key sectors including health, education, water, sanitation and hygiene and social protection.

The right to nutritious food is in the Convention of the Rights of the Child. As the world marks the 30th anniversary of the Convention, UNICEF is calling for the following actions:

  • Place child nutrition at the heart of government-supported campaigns for governments and the private sector to provide healthy foods for children.
  • Incentives for food suppliers to produce and distribute nutritious and healthy foods for children.
  • Enforce strict minimum food quality standards, improve labelling and restrict marketing of sugary snacks and ‘junk food’ with low nutritious value.
  • Provide support for working mothers and families, including paid parental leave, and dedicated time and facilities for breastfeeding in the workplace.
  • Use social protection; water, sanitation and hygiene, education and health systems to promote better nutrition for children. This includes healthy foods in school canteens, banning the sale of high salt, sugar and fat foods, providing nutrition education to students, teachers and families, access to safe water and hygienic practices in food preparation and preventive and treatment services for nutrition in health systems.
  • Collect better data through expanded collection methods on children to come up with better policies for children.



Notes to editors

On ‘hidden hunger’

Just one third of all children in the Middle East and North Africa are fed a diverse diet and less than one quarter meet the minimum acceptable diet for healthy growth and development.

Hidden hunger is also caused by negative feeding practices among infants and young children. Ninety per cent of infants from low to middle income families around the region are given fluids other than breastmilk in their first four months of life and one quarter were fed solid foods, contrary to the six months of exclusive breastfeeding recommended by UNICEF and WHO.

State of the World’s Children Report

The State of the World’s Children Report is an annual UNICEF publication that examines key issues affecting children and includes data and statistics related to the annual theme. For the first time in 20 years, the 2019 edition of the State of the World’s Children report examines food and nutrition issues, providing data and highlighting major challenges for children on children’s fundamental right to good nutrition.

Media contacts

Juliette Touma
Regional Chief of Advocacy and Communications
UNICEF Middle East and North Africa Regional Office
Tel: 00962798674628
Tamara Kummer
Communications Specialist
UNICEF Middle East and North Africa
Tel: 00962 797 588 550

Additional resources

Children eating at a school

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