Food and Nutrition

Food for thought: Understanding and combating global malnutrition

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We can’t end extreme poverty without making sure people can live healthy lives. Ensuring everyone can access the nutrient-rich foods they need is one of the most crucial ways to promote health for people everywhere. This is especially true for children.

UNICEF’s recent annual State of the World’s Children report takes an in-depth look at malnutrition and how it’s affecting the health and lives of children everywhere. The overall summary is bittersweet: more children and young people are surviving, but far too few are thriving. In other words, the current state of malnutrition is less life-threatening than in the past, but now it’s hindering the world’s youth from achieving their full potential.

What’s happening

Globally, 1 in 3 children under the age of 5 are either stunted, wasted or overweight. Additionally, half of the world’s children experience hidden hunger

Oftentimes, people think that malnutrition is the result of not having enough food. In reality, malnutrition is, like the name implies, a lack of the nutrients needed to be healthy. Not having enough to eat is one of the causes, but so is eating foods that are not nutrient-dense.

There are three key causes of malnutrition:

  • Undernutrition: This can lead to stunting, where children are under average height for their age, or wasting, where children are underweight for their height. Both can be lethal, and stunting is often a predictor of future poverty in children.
  • Hidden hunger: While not as visible, this also takes a heavy toll. Hidden hunger leads to a lack of essential vitamins and nutrients, like iron, which can lead to anemia or hinder a child’s ability to learn.
  • Overweight: In children, this can lead to early health complications and stigmatization, as well as a higher likelihood of obesity as an adult.

Globally, 1 in 3 children under the age of 5 are either stunted, wasted or overweight. Additionally, half of the world’s children experience hidden hunger. While stunting has declined in all continents except Africa, the number of overweight children has increased in all continents.

Children and young people in the most marginalized communities are the most affected by each of these forms of malnutrition. This reality extends beyond childhood, as the effects of malnutrition can lead to poverty across generations.

Why it’s happening

In recent decades, urbanization and globalization have significantly changed how we eat and live. Processed foods are incredibly common now, with 77% of the world’s processed foods coming from just 100 companies. These foods are much more common in cities, and pair with a less active lifestyle. Over half of the world’s population lives in cities today, and 70% of the world’s youth will live in cities in 30 years.

More and more people are moving to cities in part because of climate change. Climate shocks are making it harder for rural families to produce food, which creates less nutritious options and pushes families to move to urban areas. Since processed food is a significant cause of greenhouse gases, this issue will likely get worse in the coming years.

Poverty is not only the result of malnutrition, but one of its causes. Children living in extreme poverty, especially in remote areas, are less likely to have access to nutritious food. They are also more likely to opt for cheaper, low-quality food. This can affect a child’s ability to stay in school, live a healthy life and escape poverty as an adult.

Gender inequality also plays a role in malnutrition. Today, women are often still responsible for feeding and caring for children, despite making up nearly 40% of the world’s labor force. Many working mothers face time poverty — or, a lack of time not dedicated to work and other responsibilities — as a result, and they may not have the support of partners or family to help care for children. As a result, many mothers may choose foods quicker options like processed foods or fast foods to feed their children.

What we can do about it

Better nutrition should be part of improving access to education, health services, water and sanitation, and other necessities for the world’s children.

Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do to combat child malnutrition.

Cultural shifts towards healthy foods can help drive better nutrition. Having healthy diets more prominent in pop culture, providing better nutrition education and giving women more decision-making power in their families can all help make that shift happen.

Creating incentives aimed at better nutrition can also help. One way to do this is encouraging food suppliers to prioritize the health of children and limit marketing for unhealthy foods. We also need to create healthy food environments that support good nutrition in communities.

Finally, improving food systems can’t happen on its own. Better nutrition should be part of improving access to education, health services, water and sanitation, and other necessities for the world’s children. This will not only make it easier to improve nutrition, but also help create better overall support for children everywhere.

Turning the tide on children’s nutrition is a big task that’s not only possible, but crucial. Taking action to improve the health of children through better food has the power to break cycles of poverty and create better well-being globally.

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