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Children’s diet shows no improvement in last decade – UNICEF

By Ijeoma UKAZU

A new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, has said young children’s diets over the last 10 years showed no improvement and ‘could get much worse’ under COVID-19.

Findings also show that during crucial period when children begin transition to solid foods, just one in three are fed a diet diverse enough to grow well

The report, titled ‘Fed to Fail? The ‘Crisis of Children’s Diets in Early Life’ released by UNICEF ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit, further said that children under the age of two are not getting adequate food or nutrients they need to thrive and grow well, leading to irreversible developmental harm.

UNICEF’ Nigeria Deputy Representative, Rushnan Murtaza, warns that rising poverty, inequality, conflict, climate-related disasters, and health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are contributing to an ongoing nutrition crisis among the world’s youngest that has shown little sign of improvement in the last ten years.

Murtaza said, “The findings of the report are clear. Millions of young children are not being fed diets adequate for their growth and development. Poor nutritional intake in the first two years of life can harm children’s rapidly growing bodies and brains, impacting their futures. Now more than ever, with the ongoing COVID-19 disruptions, we need to reimagine a food system that improves the diets of young children, including in Nigeria.” 

In an analysis of 91 countries, including Nigeria, the UNICEF report finds that half of children aged six-23 months globally are not being fed the minimum recommended number of meals a day. Two-thirds do not consume the minimum number of food groups they need to thrive.

According to the 2018 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, in Nigeria, among children aged six-23 months, only 23 percent have the minimum necessary dietary diversity, and only 42 percent have minimum adequate meal frequency.

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt essential services and drive more families into poverty, the report finds that the pandemic is affecting how families feed their children.

According to a study conducted in Nigeria last year, Nigerians were already largely unable to afford healthy diets due to pre-existing food security challenges, with an estimated 40.1 percent of Nigerians unable to cater for their food expenditure. It is likely that this will only be worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Children carry the scars of poor diets and feeding practices for life. An insufficient intake of nutrients found to support growth at an early age puts children at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, potentially, death.

Children under the age of two are most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition – stunting, wasting (low weight for height), micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity – as a result of poor diets, due to their greater need for essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life.

Globally, UNICEF estimates that more than half of children under the age of five are wasting – around 23 million children are younger than two years of age, while the prevalence of stunting increases rapidly between six months and two years, as children’s diets fail to keep pace with their growing nutritional needs.

In Nigeria, one out of every three children is stunted and one of every ten children is wasted. As a result, close to 17 million Nigerian children are undernourished (stunted and/or wasted), giving Nigeria the highest burden of malnutrition in Africa and the second highest in the world.

Murtaza said Nigeria is off track to achieving SDG2: Zero Hunger by 2030, stressing that to change the trajectory, the time to act is now to reimagine not just food, but health and social protection systems.

To deliver nutritious, safe, and affordable diets to every child year-round, the report calls for governments, donors, civil society organizations and development actors to work hand-in-hand to transform food, health and social protection systems by:

“Increasing the availability and affordability of nutritious foods including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish, meat and fortified foods by incentivizing their production, distribution and retailing.

“Implementing national standards and legislation to protect young children from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages, and to end harmful marketing practices targeting children and families.

“Increasing the desirability of nutritious and safe foods through multiple communication channels including digital media to reach parents and children with easy to understand, coherent information.”

Murtaza added that, “We have reached a crucial tipping point. Only by joining hands with partners, government and relevant stakeholders, can we transform the Nigerian food system and provide access to diverse, nutritious, safe and affordable diets for every Nigerian child.

“The upcoming Food Systems Summit provides us the opportunity to reimagine food systems that create a fundamental shift from feeding people to nourishing them. We must apply these learnings to Nigeria, so that we can secure a healthy future for our children.”

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