Adolescent and women’s nutrition
UNICEF is working in South Asia to improve the nutrition of adolescent girls and women.
Adolescence is a nutritionally vulnerable time when rapid physical growth increases nutrient demands. Dietary behaviours established in adolescence may contribute to nutrition-related problems that have consequences for long-term health.
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.
Evidence shows that well-nourished adolescent girls stay in school longer, achieve better learning outcomes, delay their marriage and first pregnancy, multiply their life options, and advance their family’s and nation’s development.
Adolescence provides an opportunity to correct nutritional deficiencies that may have occurred in early life and to catch-up on growth, and to establish good dietary behaviours.
UNICEF works across South Asia to establish and implement policies and programmes to improve the nutritional status of adolescents, both in and out of school. We advocate and support actions to help adolescents make healthy food and beverage choices, promote physical activity, and the prevention and treatment of anaemia. We also work with other sectors, such as education, social policy and water and sanitation to tackle the underlying causes of poor nutrition.
Food fortification plays an essential role in preventing vitamin and mineral deficiencies including iron, folic acid, vitamin A, and iodine. We work with governments and other partners to put in place legislation for the mandatory fortification of staple foods such as salt, wheat flour, and oil so that everyone, especially adolescent girls and women, can benefit.
UNICEF advocates for policies and legislation to delay the age at marriage to avoid adolescent pregnancy. We work with ministries of health, health facilities and health workers to improve the coverage and quality of nutrition services during pregnancy. Adolescent girls and disadvantaged women need special attention to ensure that they are able to access antenatal services that meet their specific needs.
We support governments and other partners to collect nationally representative data on the nutrition of adolescents and women to understand the extent and drivers of poor nutrition. This informs the design of policies and programmes. We also seek to understand the impact of national policies and programmes on adolescent and women’s nutrition, and test innovative approaches to improving nutrition.
These resources represent just a small selection of materials produced by UNICEF and its partners in the region. The list is regularly updated to include the latest information.
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