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Nutrition’s lifelong impact

UNICEF Image: A group of women stand with their children at a UNICEF-supported health center
© UNICEF/UNI202632/Phelps
Konimba Keita (centre) speaks with other women and children outside the health centre in the village of Karangana, Mali. Konimba is part of a women' support group that promotes the importance of breastfeeding babies up to 2 years of age.

At UNICEF, our focus is on children, but nutrition is a lifelong issue.

The effects of poor nutrition begin in the womb, continue well into adulthood, and cycle across generations. While malnutrition can trap generations of children in a cycle of poverty, good nutrition, particularly in infancy, is the building block for future health and development.

Nutrition across the lifecycle

For UNICEF, the lifecycle approach highlights the need to target nutrition programmes to key moments in a person’s life.

Pregnancy through infancy (also known as the first 1,000 days) is the most critical period of growth and development in a child’s life. Nutritional gains during this period continue to benefit the child throughout life, while the damage from nutritional losses lasts a lifetime.

No amount of food can cure a stunted child: good nutrition must start early to prevent stunting before it starts.

UNICEF targets its interventions to this key period, improving maternal nutrition, supporting early and exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child’s life, and continued breastfeeding with appropriate complementary foods until age 2 and beyond to ensure adequate intake of vitamins and minerals.

UNICEF and its partners provide education and counselling to mothers and caregivers on feeding babies, and advocate for protective policies and legislation to enable mothers to breastfeed. UNICEF also integrates nutrition into early childhood development programmes to enhance the impact on the child’s physical, mental and social development.

Throughout childhood, good nutrition continues to play an important role in keeping children strong, healthy and free of disease. Working with partners to improve water and sanitation is critical because diarrhoeal disease in childhood, linked to unsafe drinking water, makes it impossible for a child to absorb sufficient nutrients even when appropriate foods are being consumed.

With UNICEF’s help, children also receive nutritional support through health and community services. For example, UNICEF supports vitamin A supplements for children under age 5, alongside immunization and deworming, as part of twice-yearly Child Health Days, or other approaches, in targeted countries.

Where children are suffering from acute malnutrition, UNICEF provides life-saving therapeutic foods and medical care. Longer term, UNICEF works with governments to prioritize prevention, improve nutrition policies, and integrate treatment for acute malnutrition into community and health systems.

As children grow, an increasing number of them are becoming overweight and obese. These conditions put children at risk for noncommunicable diseases and disability, which can persist into adulthood. UNICEF works to identify evidence-based policies, guidelines and regulatory frameworks that can address these emerging issues.

From adolescence through pregnancy, UNICEF works to improve the nutrition of adolescent girls and women. Phenomenal growth occurs in adolescence – second only to that in the first year of life – creating increased demands for energy and nutrients. Given that many adolescent girls and women have nutrient deficits, UNICEF supports programmes that provide micronutrients such as iron and folate during this critical time.

Micronutrients help support healthy pregnancy, prevent anaemia, promote foetal growth, and ensure that babies are born at a healthy birth weight. They are crucial to the health and survival of the growing baby – but also to the health and well-being of girls and women themselves. Micronutrient supplementation can be particularly important in countries where gender inequality denies women access to nutritious foods and appropriate care during pregnancy.

UNICEF, working with partners in education and social protection, helps keep girls in school and delay marriage and first pregnancy – factors which exacerbate girls’ and women’s malnutrition and that of their babies.

Humanitarian crises can strike at any stage of the lifecycle, and children and women are most affected. In these contexts, UNICEF mobilizes a coordinated and timely emergency response to safeguard the health and nutritional status of those who need it most.

UNICEF’s approach to nutrition is:

  • Holistic – it looks at the child as an individual and as part of a wider family, community and nation.
  • Equity focused–it understands poverty, vulnerability, and marginalization as causes and consequences of malnutrition, and recognizes that good nutrition puts all children on the same starting line.
  • Rights-based – it acknowledges that good nutrition is a fundamental right in itself, and the basis for achieving all rights of the child.
  • Gender sensitive – it ensures that girls and women have equitable access to good nutrition, and recognizes that undernutrition is most rampant in settings where girls and women face violence and discrimination.
  • Evidence-based – it draws on evidence to identify both the problems and the solutions.
  • Multisectoral – it forges links with other sectors – including health, education, child protection, and water and sanitation – to achieve maximum impact.

Read UNICEF’s latest nutrition strategy [PDF]



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