By Francesca Merlo
According to a new report launched on Wednesday by UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, globally more than half of all children under 5 years of age with acute malnutrition are under 2 years old.
The proportion of children with chronic malnutrition increases rapidly between 6 months and 2 years, as diets fail to keep pace with children's growing nutritional needs. There are some 23 million children under the age of 5 who suffer from acute malnutrition.
The report shows, after an analysis of 91 countries, that only half of children between 6 and 23 months receive the recommended minimum number of meals per day, while only a third consume the minimum number of food groups they need to thrive.
Further analysis of 50 countries with available data reveals that these inadequate feeding patterns have persisted over the past decade.
According to the report Fed to Fail? The crisis of children's diets in early life - launched at the UN Food Systems Summit this week - children aged 6-23 months living in rural areas or in poorer households are much more likely to be on low-nutrient diets than children in the same age group in urban or wealthier areas.
In 2020, for example, the proportion of children receiving the recommended minimum number of food groups was twice as high in urban areas (39%) as in rural areas (23%).
Under the age of two
Children under 2 years of age, according to the report, are not getting the food or nutrients they need to thrive and grow well, which leads to irreversible developmental damage.
UNICEF points out that growing poverty, inequality, conflict, climate-related disasters and health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic are contributing to the current nutrition crisis among the world's youngest children, which has shown little sign of improving over the past decade.
"The findings of the report are clear: at times when the stakes are highest, millions of children are inadequately fed," said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Director-General. "Poor nutrient intake in the first two years of life can irreversibly damage children's rapidly growing bodies and brains, affecting their schooling, job prospects and future. We have known this for years, but little progress has been made in providing the right kind of nutritious and safe food for young people. The current problems caused by COVID-19 could make the situation much worse."
The effects of Covid-19
While COVID-19 continues to disrupt essential services and push even more families into poverty, the report notes that the pandemic is affecting how families feed their children. For example, according to a survey of urban families in Jakarta, half of the families have been forced to reduce the purchase of nutritious food.
As a result, the percentage of children consuming the recommended minimum number of food groups decreased by one-third in 2020, compared to 2018. According to research conducted by UNICEF's regional office for Eastern and Southern Africa between June and August 2021, one in five children in Lesotho (20%) and at least one in three children in Kenya (43%) and Malawi (33%) received fewer meals due to the pandemic.
Children bear the scars of poor diets and feeding practices for life. Insufficient intake of nutrients found in vegetables, fruit, eggs, fish and meat, which are needed to support growth at an early age, puts children at risk of poor brain development and learning, low immune capacity, increased infections and, potentially, death.
Children under two years of age are the most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition - developmental delays, acute malnutrition, micronutrient deficiency, overweight and obesity - as a result of poor diets and because of their greater need for essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life.
What to do?
Implement national standards and laws to protect children from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages and end harmful marketing practices that target children and families.
Increase the appetite for nutritious and safe foods through various communication channels, including digital media to reach parents and children with easy-to-understand and consistent information.
The report notes that progress is possible with investment.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, nearly two-thirds (62%) of children aged 6-23 months are fed a minimally diversified diet, while in East and Southern Africa (24%), West and Central Africa (21%) and South Asia (19%), fewer than 1 in 4 children are fed a minimally diversified diet.
In all regions, investments are needed to ensure that every child benefits from the diversified diets they need to prevent all forms of malnutrition, and to grow, develop and learn to reach their full potential.
"Children cannot survive or thrive on calories alone," Fore continued. "Only by joining forces with governments, the private sector, civil society, humanitarian and development partners and families can we transform food systems and unlock nutritious, safe and affordable diets for every child. The upcoming UN Summit on Food Systems is an important opportunity to lay the foundations for global food systems that meet the needs of all children."