Millions of children suffering because of poor diets, UNICEF warns

18 October 2019

UNICEF/UN0321726/Mejía

An image from the UNICEF report

An image from the UNICEF report

MILLIONS of children are living in food “deserts” or “swamps”, suffering from a lack of vital nutrients owing to poor diets, a global report on the health of the world’s children has warned.

UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 2019 report, Children, Food and Nutrition: Growing well in a changing world, published on Tuesday, states that half of all children around the world under five years old are suffering from “hidden hunger”, owing to deficiencies in nutrition, and that one third are suffering from malnutrition, which leads to stunted growth. And, while 50 million children are wasted or too thin, 40 million children in the world are overweight or obese.

The number of overweight children has risen dramatically since the beginning of the 21st century, the report says, from one in ten in the year 2000 to one in five in 2016. The United States has the highest number of overweight or obese children, 41.86 per cent, and Japan the lowest, 14.42 per cent. In the UK, 31.12 per cent of children are overweight or obese.

“Overweight, long thought of as a condition of the wealthy, is now increasingly a disease of the poor, reflecting the greater availability of ‘cheap calories’ from fatty and sugary foods in almost every country in the world,” the report says.

In the UK, the study found that children living in deprived areas were twice as likely to be obese, eating high-calorie, low-nutrient junk foods and takeaways from the many high-street outlets in poorer areas. Almost two million children in England live in food poverty, and one in three are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school.

Less than one in five of children in the UK aged between five and 15 eat five portions of fruit and vegetables each day: in London, almost ten per cent of children go to bed hungry.

While the report praised the introduction of the sugar tax, it criticised the UK’s “fast-food hotspots” — poorer areas that have five times more such outlets than affluent neighbourhoods. The area with the highest number of takeaways per population is Blackpool.

The report said: “England’s poorest areas are fast-food hotspots, with five times more outlets than in affluent areas. Children from poorer areas are disproportionately exposed to takeaways selling fried chicken, burgers, and pizzas. And poorer areas also have more visible advertising for unhealthy foods than wealthier areas.”

The executive director of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, said that the world was losing ground in the fight for healthy diets. “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.

“Millions of children 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.”

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