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Poor diets damaging global and Vietnamese children’s health: UNICEF

Wednesday, October 16, 2019, 16:29 GMT+7
Poor diets damaging global and Vietnamese children’s health: UNICEF
Children have lunch at a school in Tan Phu District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nhu Hung / Tuoi Tre

An alarmingly high number of children are suffering the consequences of poor diets and a food system that is failing them, UNICEF warned Wednesday in a new report on children, food and nutrition globally.

The State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, Food and Nutrition finds that globally at least one in three children under five – or over 200 million – is either undernourished or overweight.

Almost two in three children between six months and two years of age are not fed food that supports their rapidly growing bodies and brains.

This puts them at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, in many cases, death.

“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,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF executive director.

“Millions of children across the world 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.”

The report provides the most comprehensive assessment yet of 21st century child malnutrition in all its forms.

It describes a triple burden of malnutrition: undernutrition, hidden hunger caused by a lack of essential nutrients, and overweight.

In Vietnam, according to the national nutrition surveillance 2017, among children under five, 24 percent were stunted, six percent were wasted, six percent were overweight, and more than 50 percent suffered from hidden hunger.

The report warns that poor eating and feeding practices start from the earliest days of a child’s life.

This finding is highlighted by a landscape analysis on complementary feeding and maternal nutrition as part of the Regional Initiative for Sustained Improvements in Nutrition and Growth (RISING) and carried out by the Vietnam National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) in 2019.

The analysis showed that complementary feeding practices and maternal nutrition in Vietnam are largely inadequate and inappropriate, contributing to the burden of malnutrition.

From the very start of life, many children in Vietnam are not getting proper nutrition.

Inadequate maternal diets result in underweight and overweight women who are more likely to have low birth weight babies.

Further, inadequate diets during the complementary feeding phase when the first foods are introduced between six months and two years are common in Vietnam.

According to the national nutrition surveillance 2015, 18 percent of children did not have a diet that was sufficiently diverse and 36 percent were not fed frequently enough.

“We live today in a world where more children are surviving – but too few are thriving,” said Rana Flowers, UNICEF representative in Vietnam.

“If we can get nutrition right in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life – then the child will have a strong foundation for life.

“Getting nutrition right means ensuring pregnant women receive nutrients that keep them strong and support their growing baby.

“At birth, breast milk and only breast milk for six months, and then complementary feeding which is when a range of food including vegetables and fruits are gradually introduced.

“While Vietnam has made good progress in reducing its rate of undernutrition in recent decades, chronic malnutrition or stunting remains unacceptably high and there is a risk that rates of overweight will rise.

“The costs of not addressing malnutrition in its all forms including stunting, underweight, wasting, hidden hunger, overweight in children are rising – a better investment is to provide nutrition services through multiple systems including a strengthened food and primary health care system.”

According to the SOWC report, as children grow older, their exposure to unhealthy food becomes 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.

As a result, overweight and obesity levels in childhood and adolescence are increasing worldwide.

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.

Ten times more girls and 12 times more boys in this age group suffer from obesity today than in 1975.

The report also notes that climate-related disasters cause severe food crises.

Drought, for example, is responsible for 80 percent of damage and losses in agriculture, dramatically altering what food is available to children and families, as well as the quality and price of that food.

To address this growing malnutrition crisis in all its forms, UNICEF is issuing an urgent appeal to governments, the private sector, donors, civil society organizations, parents, families and businesses to help children 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 and drinks
  • Driving food suppliers to do the right thing for children, by incentivizing the provision of healthy, convenient, affordable and fortified foods
  • Building healthy food environments for children and adolescents by using proven approaches, such as accurate and easy-to-understand labelling and stronger controls on the marketing of unhealthy foods and breast-milk substitutes
  • Mobilizing supportive systems – health, water and sanitation, education and social protection – to scale up nutrition results for all children.
  • Collecting, analyzing and using good-quality data and evidence to guide action and track progress.

The RISING initiative specifically calls for an improvement in the diets of women and young children during the complementary feeding period from six to 24 months of age, as essential for addressing malnutrition in Vietnam.

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