Over the past decade, our attempts at reducing the number of underweight and anaemic adolescent girls in South Asia has been slow. 11 percent of South Asian adolescent girls aged 15-19 years are too short, 39 percent are underweight and 55 percent are anaemic. The diets of adolescent girls and women in South Asia are often too poor to meet nutritional needs for healthy growth and development. Only 20 to 40 percent of South Asian adolescent girls meet their recommended dietary intake.
Poor nutrition is more common among rural areas and large families with uneducated or unskilled parents from lower-income households. With changing diets and physical activity levels, overweight and obesity are also emerging problems, particularly among urban residents and wealthier households. The consumption of processed foods high in fat and sugar is rising, and adolescents and adults are becoming increasingly sedentary. Overweight and obesity in adolescent girls is associated with obesity in adult women, which increases the risk of diabetes, hypertension and infant overweight and obesity. In Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India, overweight and obesity in adults have increased two-fold to five-fold in the last 10 years.
The nutritional status of adolescent girls and women impacts the growth and development of their future children. In South Asia, the young age at which many girls first become pregnant – combined with their poor education, inadequate decision-making power and poor control over resources – means that many enter pregnancy with low height and weight, and cannot support healthy foetal growth. In Bangladesh, over one-third of babies are born with low birth weight and start life on a trajectory of poor growth and development. While access to antenatal services has increased throughout the region, the coverage of essential nutrition interventions has been slow to improve. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, less than half of women take any iron supplements during pregnancy.