A third of the world's nearly 700 million children suffer from malnourishment, both in the form of undernourishment and obesity, according to the State of the World's Children report published by UNICEF. For the first time since 1999, the report focused on nutrition and food available to children.
Today children in poor and middle-income countries are plagued by health problems that used to exist in only the richest and poorest countries.
Half of all children suffer from what UNICEF calls "hidden hunger," a condition where they do not get essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.
Around 50 million children suffer from wasting, a type of debilitating thinness due to poverty.
A further 149 million children under the age of 4 experience stunted growth and are too short for their age. This is despite the fact that the rate of stunting decreased nearly 40% between 1990 and 2015. Stunting can impair development of both the brain and body.
According to the report, nearly 45% of children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years aren't fed any fruit or vegetables. Nearly 60% don't receive any eggs, dairy, fish or meat.
African and South Asian countries have the highest rates of children under the age of five who are stunted, wasted or overweight. The worst scores belong to Papua New Guinea and Eritrea: over 60% of young children in these countries are not growing well.
A 'triple burden'
When looking at all age groups, more than 800 million people are constantly hungry while another 2 million are eating too much unhealthy food.
Obesity hardly existed in poor nations 30 years ago. But thanks to growing access to junk food, at least 10% of children under the age of 5 are now considered overweight or obese in three-quarters of low-income countries. Globally, 40 million children are considered overweight or obese.
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Tackling child malnourishment is difficult when it takes so many shapes. "This triple burden — undernutrition, a lack of crucial micronutrients, obesity — is increasingly found in the same country, sometimes in the same neighborhood, and often in the same household," said the head of UNICEF's nutrition program, Victor Aguayo.
Climate change factor
Meanwhile, climate change is exacerbating undernourishment. Warming global temperatures have caused an increased rate and intensity of droughts that have resulted in heavy agricultural loss. The increased presence of carbon in the atmosphere is also robbing staple crops of vitamins and nutrients.
To ensure a healthy diet for every child, UNICEF calls for a political movement similar to the one around climate change. Measures could include clearer labeling and taxes on junk food, regulating the sale of baby formula, and limiting advertising and the sale of junk food near schools.
"If our children are not fed healthy diets," said Aguayo, " we are putting a huge question mark on the future of our societies."
kp/ng (AFP, dpa)