A third of the world’s nearly 700-million children under five years old are undernourished or overweight and face lifelong health problems as a consequence, according to a grim UN assessment of childhood nutrition released Tuesday.
“If children eat poorly, they live poorly,” said UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore, unveiling the Fund’s first State of the World’s Children report since 1999.
“We are losing ground in the fight for healthy diets,” Fore added.
In Southeast Asia, a diet heavy on cheap, modern food like instant noodles that fills bellies but lacks key nutrients has left millions of children unhealthily thin or overweight, experts say.
The Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia have booming economies and rising standards of living, yet many working parents do not have the time, money or awareness to steer clear of food hurting their kids.
In those three nations, an average of 40 percent of children aged five and below are malnourished, higher than the global average of one-in-three, according to the UNICEF report.
“Parents believe that filling their children’s stomach is the most important thing. They don’t really think about an adequate intake of protein, calcium or fibre,” Hasbullah Thabrany, a public health expert in Indonesia, told AFP.
To give some sense of scale to the problem, Indonesia had 24.4-million children under five last year, while the Philippines had 11 million and Malaysia 2.6 million, UNICEF data show.
Mueni Mutunga, UNICEF Asia nutrition specialist, traced the trend back to families ditching traditional diets for affordable, accessible and easy-to-prepare “modern” meals.
“Noodles are easy. Noodles are cheap. Noodles are quick and an easy substitute for what should have been a balanced diet,” she told AFP.
“Poverty is the key issue,” said T. Jayabalan, a public health expert in Malaysia, adding that households, where both parents work, need quickly made meals.
Problems that once existed at opposite ends of the wealth spectrum have today converged in poor and middle-income countries, the report showed.
Despite a nearly 40-percent drop from 1990 to 2015 of stunting in poor countries, 149 million children four or younger are today still too short for their age, a clinical condition that impairs both brain and body development.
Another 50 million are afflicted by wasting, a chronic and debilitating thinness also born of poverty.
At the same time, half of youngsters across the globe under five are not getting essential vitamins and minerals, a long-standing problem UNICEF has dubbed “hidden hunger.”
Over the last three decades, however, another form of child malnutrition has surged across the developing world: Excess weight.
“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 Victor Aguayo, head of UNICEF’s nutrition program.