The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has warned that there is an alarming high number of children suffering the consequences of poor diets and a food system that is failing them as it marked the World Food Day on October 16.
In its flagship ‘State of the World’s Children Report 2019’ dubbed ‘Children, food and nutrition’, UNICEF states that at least, one in three children under five or over 200 million children are either undernourished or overweight in the world.
Zooming in to Ghana, the report states that close to one in every five children under five years are stunted, while one in every 10 children under five are underweight.
It also found that almost two in three children between six months and two years of age were not fed food that supported their rapidly growing bodies and brains, and according to the children-centred organisation, this put them at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and in many cases, death.
In a statement to launch the report, the UNICEF Executive Director, Ms Henrietta Fore, said “despite all the technological, cultural and social advances of the last few decades, we have lost sight of this most basic fact: If children eat poorly, they live poorly”.
“Millions of children subsist on an unhealthy diet because they simply do not have a better choice. The way we understand and respond to malnutrition needs to change. It is not just about getting children enough to eat; it is above all, about getting them the right food to eat. That is our common challenge today,” she added.
The report summed up the state of children’s malnutrition in the 21st century, saying “more children and young people are surviving, but far too few are thriving. They are not thriving in the crucial first 1,000 days, when the foundations for healthy, lifelong physical growth and mental development are laid. And they are not thriving at other crucial development stages of life across childhood and into adolescence”.
The report described a triple burden of malnutrition that is undernutrition, hidden hunger caused by a lack of essential nutrients and overweight among children under the age of five, noting that around the world, 149 million children were stunted, or too short for their age, while another 50 million were wasted, or too thin for their height.
According to the report, as children began transitioning to soft or solid foods around the six-month mark, too many were introduced to the wrong kind of diet, saying close to 45 per cent of children between six months and two years of age were not fed any fruits or vegetables and that nearly 60 per cent did not eat any eggs, dairy, fish or meat.
It also says that 340 million children or one in two children suffer from deficiencies in essential vitamins and nutrients such as vitamin A and iron and another 40 million children are overweight or obese.
The report identified that poor eating and feeding practices started from the earliest days of a child’s life, stressing that although breastfeeding could save lives, only 42 per cent of children under six months of age were exclusively breastfed and an increasing number of children were fed infant formula.
The report indicated that recent reports from the Ghana Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) showed that the number of Ghanaian children exclusively breastfed used to be at 52 per cent but had declined to 43 per cent.
It identified that the sale of milk-based formula grew by 72 per cent between 2008 and 2013 in upper middle-income countries such as Brazil, China and Turkey, largely due to inappropriate marketing and weak policies and programmes to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.
The report identified that as children grew older, their exposure to unhealthy food became alarming, driven largely by inappropriate marketing and advertising, the abundance of ultra-processed foods in cities, but also in remote areas and increasing access to fast food and highly sweetened beverages.
It said as a result, overweight and obesity levels in childhood and adolescence were increasing worldwide, indicating that from 2000 to 2016, the proportion of overweight children between five and 19 years of age doubled from one in 10 to almost one in five — 10 times more girls and 12 times more boys in this age group suffer from obesity today than in 1975.
The report further stated that children who suffered from overweight were usually from socio-economically disadvantaged families.
It noted that the greatest burden of malnutrition in all its forms was shouldered by children and adolescents from the poorest and most marginalised communities, saying only one in five children aged six months to two years from the poorest households ate sufficiently diverse diet for healthy growth.
It said even in high income countries such as the UK, the prevalence of overweight was more than twice as high in the poorest areas as in the richest areas, adding that in Ghana also, only 24 per cent of children six months to two years ate diverse foods, saying for the group that was most vulnerable to malnutrition, the number of children introduced to the minimum number of diverse foods was very low.
To help address this growing malnutrition crisis in all its forms, UNICEF issued an urgent appeal to governments, the private sector, donors, parents, families and businesses to help children to grow healthy by empowering families, children and young people to demand nutritious food, including by improving nutrition education and using proven legislation such as sugar taxes to reduce demand for unhealthy foods.
UNICEF also called for a healthy food environment for children and adolescents through the use of proven approaches such as accurate and easy-to-understand labelling and stronger controls on the marketing of unhealthy foods.
Finally, UNICEF also asked for the mobilising of supportive systems, especially in the areas of health, water and sanitation, education and social protection, to help scale up nutrition results for all children.