At least one in three children under the age of five is not growing well in the country, according to the recently launched UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report on Children, Food and Nutrition.
This, according to the report, is due to malnutrition in its more visible forms: stunting (short stature for age), wasting (low weight for height) and overweight that children suffer as the consequences of poor diet and feeding practices.
The figure was estimated considering the population of children under five at 63,000 last year.
“Children who are not growing well are the victims of the triple burden of malnutrition: undernutrition, hidden hunger and overweight,” the report stated.
The triple burden of nutrition was driven by the poor quality of children’s diets.
Currently, the underweight prevalence in the country is at nine percent. Only about one in 10 children receives adequate mix of nutrients daily.
UNICEF’s deputy representative Juliette Haenni, during the launch of the report, said that it is for this reason that the level of minimal acceptable diet (MAD), a global standard of right diet at right age and right quantity is as low as 12 percent for Bhutan.
Last year, 149 million (M) children under five were stunted and almost 50M wasted worldwide. In South Asia, 58.7M children under five were stunted and 25.9M were wasted.
“The triple burden of malnutrition undermines children’s health, physical and cognitive development,” the report stated.
Besides depriving too many children of the energy and nutrients they need to grow well, malnutrition underlines 45 percent of deaths in children aged under five every year according to the report.
Last year, under five mortality rates was 30 deaths for 1000 live births in the country.
The recent global estimates by UNICEF and partners indicated that at least 340M children under five, equivalent to at least one in two suffer from hidden hunger due to deficiencies in vitamins and other essential nutrients.
“Bhutan faces a silent emergency in quality of diet,” said Juliette Haenni. She said that micronutrient deficiencies were a major challenge where one in three adolescent girls and two in five children below five were anemic, a significant public health problem.
Iron deficiency is the common cause. Iron deficiency , the reort stated, reduces children’s ability to learn and anaemia increases women’s risk of death during or shortly after childbirth.
The report stated that overweight and obesity, long thought of as conditions of the wealthy, are now increasingly a condition of the poor. In a span of 16 years since 2000, the proportion of overweight children (5 to 19 years old) rose from one in 10 to almost one in five worldwide. “Child overweight can lead to early onset of type-2 diabetes.”
Millions of children were eating too little of what they need, and millions were eating too much of what they don’t need according to the report. Poor diets were now the main risk factor for the global burden of disease.
Less than one in three children worldwide and only one in five in South Asia between 6 and 23 months were eating foods that can support their rapidly growing bodies and brains, the report stated.
56 percent of children in South Asia were not fed any fruits or vegetables.
UNICEF and WHO recommended that children aged between 6 and 23 months eat a minimum of five of eight food groups to get enough nutrients to grow well.
Globalisation, urbanisation, inequities, humanitarian crises and climate shocks were driving unprecedented negative changes in the nutrition situation of children around the world according to the report.
“Climate-related shocks, such as flooding, are already challenging the capacity of some communities to feed themselves and are exposing children to increased risk from waterborne diseases,” the report stated.
If current trends continue, the impact of food production on the environment will only grow, with food demand set to increase by at least half by mid-century, the report warned.
To make food systems work better for children, the report recommended understanding the unique nutritional needs of children at every stage of life, particularly in the first 1,000 days. Understanding the rapidly evolving contexts such as climate change and globalisation that are shaping and reshaping children’s diets was also one of the recommendations.
Initiating financial incentives on healthy and affordable foods, regulating the marketing of breast milk substitutes and promoting healthy food environment in schools were some interventions recommended.
“Our goal must be to give children diets that are nutritious, safe, affordable and sustainable,” the report stated.