Globally, millions of children live in suboptimal conditions and lack the nutrition resources they need to thrive and in many cases, even survive. The prevalence of malnutrition among children is staggering. According to UNICEF, approximately half of all deaths of children under the age of 5 years old are related to malnutrition around the world. The effects of malnutrition don’t just stop with the condition itself. Being malnourished puts children at a heightened risk for succumbing to other illnesses, infection, and even death.
The term malnutrition actually refers to both undernutrition and overnutrition. While the first refers to not getting enough nutrients, the latter refers to getting too much nutrition. Both states of malnutrition mean the proper balance of nutrition for growth, development, and optimal health is lacking in a child’s life. Not getting enough nutrition in the first three years of a child’s life is also likely to lead to stunted growth, or having a low height for weight. This is associated with impaired brain and neurological development.
As of 2019, over 21% of kids around the world were suffering from stunted growth and its related health effects. Areas with the highest prevalence of stunting include South Asia and parts of Africa, where stunted growth affects over 30% of kids. These delays put kids at risk for impaired learning and performance in academic and work environments throughout life. Not getting enough nutrition can also lead to wasting, a condition in which children have a low weight for their height. As of 2019, 47 million children under five around the world had wasting, and over 14 million of those children had severe wasting. Stunting and wasting are more common in poor countries.
Overnutrition is more commonly known as being overweight or obese. These states of malnutrition are often associated with chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, liver disease, or type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, even overweight and obese children can be deficient in micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals, necessary to thrive. These deficiencies can simultaneously set them up for other chronic diseases. Globally, nearly 6% of children are overweight or obese.
Many households around the world lack the access to healthy food choices that provide children with adequate nutrition. Families may be unable to find or afford foods like whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes that support childhood development. Instead, they may rely on unhealthy convenience items and highly processed foods that are much more accessible, shelf stable, and less costly. Both of these scenarios affect families in both developed and underdeveloped countries around the world.
What’s more, it’s not uncommon for both childhood malnutrition and adult obesity to occur within the same households and communities in middle-income countries. Unfortunately, beginning life with suboptimal nutrition status – whether undernourished or overnourished – puts kids at a significant long-term disadvantage.