Why Uganda must put children's nutrition first

Op-Ed by Dr. Doreen Mulenga UNICEF Representative in Uganda

15 October 2019
nutrition, malnutrition, infant nutrition
UNICEF Uganda/2015/Ose

Launch of the State of the World Children's Report 2019

Three out of 10 children under five years in Uganda are ‘short for their age’ or stunted; 280,000 are ‘too thin’ or wasted; and over 53 per cent of children below five years of age are anaemic.  With over half its population under the age of 18, Uganda must pay attention to nutrition.

For the first time in 20 years, UNICEF’s annual State of the World’s Children report is focusing on nutrition, one of the most critical, if underappreciated, drivers of brain and body development in children. While Uganda’s poorest and most marginalized communities struggle with malnutrition—especially stunting and severe acute malnutrition in children under five years—the problem of inadequate nutrition is far more pervasive than most parents realize. 

‘Eat Poorly, Live Poorly’ 

Why does nutrition matter? Poor nutrition undermines children’s physical and cognitive development. Children who are not fed a variety of nutritious foods to support their rapidly growing bodies and brains, and are not fed at appropriate intervals, are at risk of poor brain development, limited learning ability, low immunity, and increased infections.  

Unfortunately, parents don’t always know when their children are suffering from poor nutrition. Just two out of every 10 babies aged 6-23 months in Uganda are fed a ‘balanced diet’. Children’s diets in Uganda are predominantly starch-based and lack the critical nutrients that children’s brains and bodies need to grow. 

Moreover, the UNICEF report notes that we’re seeing at global levels an increase in overweight and obesity among children and adolescents. These children are also not eating the right foods. 

Malnutrition is a real problem in Uganda: the majority of our children are at risk of nutrient deficiency because of the poor quality of their diets. 

‘Go’, ‘Grow’, and ‘Glow’ to achieve balance

So how do we change this?  To close this gap, we need to diversify our children’s diets and ensure that children are fed multiple times a day from each of the three food groups readily available in Uganda:

    Energy-giving foods also known as the GO foods contain carbohydrates and fats that give our bodies energy and heat. Some include: maize, millet, potatoes/sweet potatoes, bananas, cassava, sorghum, rice, yams and wheat. Fatty foods include cow ghee, cooking oil, meat, and margarine. 

    Body-building foods, also known as GROW foods, largely contain the protein that makes our bodies and brains grow healthy. They include milk, eggs, fish, beef, goat meat, chicken, liver, grasshoppers, groundnuts, beans, peas, soya beans, sim-sim, and sunflower seeds.

    Protective foods, also known as GLOW foods, largely contain the vitamins and minerals that protect the body from diseases and keep the bones, teeth, skin, and blood strong.  These include vegetables such as cabbages, dodo, egg plants, green pepper, carrots, malakwang, boo, pumpkins, cassava leaves, and fruits.

Which way forward?

Uganda’s journey to a nutritious future begins today. I have met with many inspiring and qualified health workers, and government and NGO staff, and I am confident that by working jointly with all partners involved we can reduce undernutrition in children. At UNICEF, part of our commitment to help children means investing in those areas where incidents of malnutrition are far above the national average, such as West Nile and Karamoja. Malnutrition can only be tackled by addressing it at every stage of the child’s life and by putting children’s nutritional needs in the center of agricultural practices, health service delivery, water and sanitation, education and social protection.

But all of us can do more in our homes and communities, beginning with introducing balanced diets that are wholesome, safe, affordable, and sustainable. 

With UNICEF and partners’ support and work, we are confident that Uganda will overcome its current nutrition challenges, especially as Uganda’s Nutrition Action Plan is rolled out and linked to early childhood development programmes across the country. My dream is for every child to have the best start in life, and we can make that a reality for this generation.
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Information for newspaper

The full State of the World’s Children Report, launched on 15 October 2019, can be accessed on www.unicef.org.
The full, pdf version of the report will be made available on UNICEF.org via this link after the embargo lifts at 00.01 GMT on 15 October. 
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