Nutrition in middle childhood and adolescence
Preventing malnutrition in school-age children and adolescents.
After early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence – the period from age 5 to 19 – is a second window of opportunity for growth, psychosocial development, and establishing lifelong dietary and lifestyle habits.
Good nutrition during this period fuels growing brains and bodies, and improves school enrolment, educational achievement and cognition. Nutritious diets also allow some children and adolescents to experience catch-up growth after stunting in early childhood.
Yet, today, many school-age children and adolescents are failing to consume diets that give them the foundation for long, healthy and productive adult lives.
Many of them miss breakfast; eat too few fruits, vegetables, fish and dairy products; and regularly consume snacks high in sugar, salt and saturated fat. About 21 per cent of school-going adolescents consume vegetables less than once a day; 34 per cent eat fruit less than once a day; 42 per cent drink soft drinks daily; and 46 per cent consume fast food at least weekly.
Limited access to diverse and nutritious foods can result in deficiencies in essential micronutrients, such as iron. Adolescent girls may be especially vulnerable, as discrimination and cultural norms often mean they lack access to nutritious food, nutrition services and education.
External influences – such as peer pressure, the desire to fit in among friends, and aggressive food marketing – heavily influence what adolescents eat. What’s more, fast food and prepared snacks are widely available in urban areas, including in and around schools.
The prevention of malnutrition in school-age children and adolescents is an opportunity to enhance growth and development, improve learning, and establish positive dietary practices that break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.
UNICEF programmes aim to prevent all forms of malnutrition in school-age children and adolescents by:
Supporting nutrition education in school curricula
UNICEF advocates for school curricula that advance knowledge and skills about good nutrition and physical activity. This includes promoting healthy behaviours and improving the capacities of teachers to deliver nutrition education and support physical activity among school-age children and adolescents.
Improving the quality of children’s diets in schools and beyond
UNICEF supports countries in developing guidance for nutritious and safe school meals, and advocates for the use of fortified foods in schools where nutrient-poor diets are common. To improve the quality of children’s diets, we support large-scale food fortification programmes – such as salt iodization and the fortification of wheat flour, rice, and cooking oil with vitamins and nutrients.
Promoting healthy food environments in schools and beyond
UNICEF works to make nutritious, safe, and affordable foods, as well as free and safe drinking water, available in schools and surrounding areas. We advocate for policies and legislation that protect children from the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, as well as for food labelling, fiscal measures and other regulations that help consumers make healthy food choices.
Promoting healthy dietary practices
UNICEF advocates for and supports large-scale campaigns and social and behaviour change communication programmes to increase awareness about the benefits of good diets, healthy eating habits, and physical activity among school-age children and adolescents. This involves identifying gender-sensitive and context-appropriate messages to raise awareness and shift behaviours.
Providing micronutrient supplementation and deworming
UNICEF supports micronutrient supplementation policies and programmes for school-age children and adolescents – such as iron and folic acid supplementation – in settings where nutrient-poor diets are common. We also support deworming prophylaxis to prevent intestinal worm infections in children and adolescents.