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  • In 2019, a girl eats lunch in the Hanaq Chuquibamba community in Peru.

    In 2019, a girl eats lunch in the Hanaq Chuquibamba community in Peru. | Photo: UNICEF

Published 15 October 2019

"We are losing ground in the fight for healthy diets," warned the UNICEF Director, stressing that governments, the private sector and civil society must work together and prioritize child nutrition.

At least one in every three children under 5 years of age is undernourished or overweight, according to a new United Nations Children's Fund report that rings the alarm on the consequences of poor diets around the world.

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UNICEF warns that millions of children are eating too little of the food they need and too much of what they don't need, adding “poor diets are now the main risk factor for the global burden of disease.”

The result, according to UNICEF, is that many of them are at risk of poor brain development, learning problems, poor immunity and increased infections and disease.

"Millions of children subsist on an unhealthy diet because they simply do not have a better choice," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

According to UNICEF, it is necessary to change the way people understand and respond to malnutrition needs as "it is not just about getting children enough to eat; it is above all about getting them the right food to eat,” Fore said.

The report describes the triple burden of malnutrition: undernutrition, hidden hunger and overweight.

In 2018, according to UNICEF data, 149 million children under 5 years of age worldwide are stunted, and just under 50 million are wasted.

Contrary to common belief, most wasted children are concentrated in Asia rather than in countries facing emergencies.

In addition, 340 million children suffer deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals and 40 million under 5 are overweight or obese, a problem that has exploded in recent years

The problems, as described in the report, begin from the first months of life, since only two out of five babies under 6 months are fed exclusively on breast milk, as recommended by specialists.

The use of infant formula for breastfeeding has increased significantly in recent years, with a growth of 41 percent globally between 2008 and 2013, and by 72 percent in upper middle-income countries, such as Brazil, China and Turkey.

From 6 months to 2 years of age, 44 percent of children do not receive fruits or vegetables and 59 percent are not fed eggs, dairy products, fish or meat, UNICEF reports.

In the case of school-age children, the report warns of the high consumption of highly processed foods, carbonated drinks and fast food.

As an example, it points out that 42 percent of school-going adolescents in low- and middle-income countries drink sugar-filled carbonated beverages at least once a day.

UNICEF points to the “high costs of healthy foods, the time pressures families are increasingly facing, the limited availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in many communities, and the pressure many families feel from marketing and advertising” as contributing causes.

In addition, climate-related disasters, such as drought, cause severe food shortages.

To combat child malnutrition in the world, UNICEF recommends working in food education, using measures such as sugar tax, financial incentives to reward actors who increase the availability of healthy and affordable foods in markets and other points of sale, and fortification of complementary and staple foods with micronutrients.

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