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The faces of malnutrition

© UNICEF/UNI185344/Karki
Two community health volunteers measure the mid upper arm circumference of Anish Tamang during a nutrition orientation at the Mulkharka Health Post in Sundarijal, Kathmandu.

Malnutrition: an invisible emergency

Malnutrition has a million faces:

  • A child who never reaches full height due to poverty, poor sanitation, lack of breastfeeding and limited access to nutritious foods
  • A young woman who becomes anaemic during her pregnancy and gives birth to an underweight baby who later faces developmental delays
  • A child rendered blind by vitamin A deficiency
  • A child who becomes obese through overconsumption of low quality food
  • A desperately thin and wasted child, at imminent risk of death

Nearly half of all deaths in children under 5 can be attributed to undernutrition. This translates into the unnecessary loss of about 3 million young lives a year.

Only a fraction of these children die in catastrophic circumstances such as famine or war. In the majority of cases, the lethal hand of malnutrition is far more subtle: it stunts children’s growth, deprives them of essential vitamins and minerals, and makes them more susceptible to disease.

Malnutrition is a violation of a child’s right to survival and development – and its consequences often remain invisible until it’s too late.

Malnutrition is more than a lack of food - it is a combination of factors: insufficient protein, energy and micronutrients, frequent infections or disease, poor care and feeding practices, inadequate health services, and poor water and sanitation. The lack of or inadequate breastfeeding practices alone result in almost 12 per cent of all deaths among children under age 5.1

Chronic malnutrition early in life leads to stunting, which prevents children’s bodies and brains from growing to reach their full potential. The damage caused by stunting is irreversible and has far reaching consequences, from diminished learning and school performance, to lower future earnings. Globally, 159 million children under 5 are stunted. These children often come from the poorest households, making stunting a key marker of poverty and inequality.

Wasting – illustrated most starkly, as its name suggests, by the child that is literally wasting away to skin and bones – is the crushing result of acute malnutrition and poses an immediate threat to survival. In 2014, 50 million children under 5 were wasted and 16 million were severely wasted.

Malnutrition’s emerging triple threat

While stunting and wasting persist across the globe, the face of malnutrition is rapidly changing. Overnutrition – including overweight and obesity – is now on the rise in almost every country in the world.

Globally, an estimated 41 million children are overweight. Many countries are now facing an overlapping ‘triple burden’ of malnutrition: undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies on the one hand, and overweight and obesity on the other.

These problems do not lie on opposite ends of a spectrum from starvation to obesity: the reality is much more complex. In fact, undernutrition and overnutrition frequently coexist within the same country, community, and even within the same individual. Stunted children, for example, face a greater risk of becoming overweight as adults.

The causes of undernutrition and overweight and obesity are similar and intertwined. Poverty, lack of access to adequate diets, poor infant and young child feeding practices, and the marketing and sales of unhealthy foods and drinks can lead to undernutrition as well as to overweight and obesity.

The foundations of good nutrition

Undernutrition and overweight can be prevented with many of the same approaches. A key set of tried and tested interventions – particularly during the critical window of the first 1,000 days of life – can make all the difference.

The foundations of good nutrition include improving women’s nutrition before, during, and after pregnancy; promoting and supporting exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child’s life, and continued breastfeeding to age 2 or beyond; facilitating timely, safe, appropriate and high-quality complementary foods; and providing appropriate micronutrient interventions.

In both emergencies and development settings, UNICEF’s programmes help build the foundations of good nutrition and prevent and treat malnutrition in all its forms.

Nutrition for sustainable development

Good nutrition lays the foundation for healthy, thriving and productive communities and nations.

Well-nourished children are healthier, more resistant to disease and crises, and perform better in school. As they grow, they are better able to participate in and contribute to their communities. The benefits of good nutrition thus carry across generations and act as the “glue” binding together and supporting various facets of a nation’s development.

Now more than ever, there is global recognition that good nutrition is the key to sustainable development. Specifically, Goal 2 of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture”.

But good nutrition is more than just ending hunger: it is also vital to achieving many SDG targets, including ending poverty, achieving gender equality, ensuring healthy lives, promoting lifelong learning, improving economic growth, building inclusive societies, and ensuring sustainable consumption.

To give just one example: breastfeeding prevents death, childhood illness and non-communicable diseases, while supporting brain development and protecting maternal health. It is also environmentally sustainable and reduces inequalities by reaching even those with limited access to health services.

Transforming the nutrition landscape

The global nutrition landscape has changed immensely in recent years. Countries are recognizing the power of nutrition to strengthen societies and transform the lives of children and their families – even in the poorest and most fragile places.

UNICEF is at the forefront of this shift, providing global leadership and supporting countries in scaling up nutrition programmes for mothers and their children, with a focus on reaching the most vulnerable and marginalized populations. Learn more about our approach and our work here.




1 UNICEF Global databases, 2015, based on MICS, DHS and other nationally representative surveys



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