Progress for Children Homepage
A REPORT CARD ON NUTRITION: NUMBER 4, MAY 2006 View Previous Editions>

The world’s lowest incidence of low birthweight is found in industrialized countries and in the East Asia/Pacific region.

South Asia has the highest incidence of low birthweight.

Industrialized countries

Many industrialized countries collect data on nutritional status, but they analyse them using a methodology that is not comparable to that used for developing countries. The only industrialized country with comparable figures is the United States, where 2 per cent of children are underweight, 1 per cent are stunted and 6 per cent are wasted.

Low birthweight in industrialized countries averages 7 per cent, on a par with East Asia/Pacific. The lowest rate (4 per cent) is in Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania and Sweden. This low incidence is a reflection of good maternal nutrition. But the percentage of low birthweight infants has actually increased in recent years, attributable to increasing numbers of multiple births; women bearing children later in life; and improved medical technology and prenatal care that allow more pre-term babies to survive.34

Gender, geographic and socio-economic disparities, both within and between countries, represent the biggest threat to child nutrition in industrialized countries. Social inequalities are rising, particularly in some countries of eastern Europe.35

Despite sketchy data, there is evidence of declining levels of salt iodization in Europe due to complacency.36 Universal salt iodization should be as much a priority for these countries as for developing nations.

Data on exclusive breastfeeding are also limited. Rates are typically low and are improving only slowly in Europe.

Malnutrition in industrialized countries is most likely due to inappropriate food choices and practices. Increasing levels of obesity are now a major public health problem in some areas of industrialized countries and increasingly in many developing countries too.37 A major concern is the coexistence, especially in disadvantaged populations, of the ‘double burden of disease’ with ‘overnutrition’ occurring in the same communities, and even families, in which child undernutrition is common.

Obesity increases health risks, including the incidence of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, non-insulin-dependent diabetes and other serious diseases and conditions. In several western European countries, the prevalence of child overweight, including obesity, doubled from the early 1980s to the end of the 1990s. In several areas in southern Europe, one child in three is overweight.38


34  Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Health at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2005, OECD, Paris, p. 32.
35  World Health Organization, European Health Report 2005: Public health action for healthier children and populations, WHO Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen, 2005.
36  Andersson, M., et al., Iodine Deficiency in Europe: A continuing public health problem, A WHO/UNICEF Report, World Health Organization, Geneva, 2004.
37  Darnton-Hill, Ian, C. Nishida and W.P.T. James, ‘A life course approach to diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases’, Public Health Nutrition, vol. 7, no. 1A, 2004, pp. 101–121.
38  World Health Organization, European Health Report 2005: Public health action for healthier children and populations, WHO Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen, 2005, p. 64.