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Poor diets damaging children’s health worldwide

UNICEF: Poor diets damaging children’s health worldwide, New Zealand not immune.

Poverty, urbanization, climate change and poor eating choices driving unhealthy diets; 1 in 3 children under five is malnourished; 2 in 3 children under two live on poor diets

Wellington, 15 October 2019 – An alarmingly high number of children are suffering the consequences of poor diets, UNICEF warned today in a new report on children, food and nutrition.

The State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, food and nutrition finds that at least 1 in 3 children under five – or 200 million – is either undernourished or overweight.

UNICEF New Zealand is calling on government, businesses and primary industries to put children’s nutrition and health at the heart of decision making.

While it has recently been revealed that Ministry of Health figures for obesity in children in New Zealand have been miscalculated, UNICEF New Zealand Executive Director Vivien Maidaborn says there is plenty of evidence not all children in New Zealand are afforded the same opportunities to live and eat well “There is no denying that some of our children’s health and nutrition are negatively affected by growing economic inequality and a food industry that is failing them.”

The global report provides the most comprehensive assessment yet of the 21st century child and nutrition. It describes a triple burden of malnutrition: Undernutrition, the number of children under the age of five who are overweight and ‘hidden hunger’ caused by a lack of essential nutrients.

Around the world:

• 149 million children are stunted, or too short for their age,

• 50 million children are wasted, or too thin for their height,

• 340 million children – or 1 in 2 – suffer from deficiencies in essential vitamins and nutrients such as vitamin A and iron,

• 40 million children are overweight or obese.

The report warns that poor eating and feeding practices start from the earliest days of a child’s life. Though breastfeeding can save lives, for example, only 42 per cent of children under six months of age are exclusively breastfed and an increasing number of children are fed infant formula. Sales of milk-based formula grew by 72 per cent between 2008 and 2013 in upper middle-income countries such as Brazil, China and Turkey, largely due to inappropriate marketing and weak policies and programmes to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.

UNICEF New Zealand says our own dairy industry has been implicated in some countries with rapidly falling breastfeeding rates and children’s failure to thrive. “It is time we closed the gap between business practice and the impact of business activity on children’s health and wellbeing.” Maidaborn says.

“There are amazing grass-roots, school and community initiatives working to provide and promote healthy eating for children but often that good work is hampered by lack of access to affordable healthy food and the aggressive marketing and access to food that damages children’s development.”

As children grow older, their exposure to unhealthy food increases, driven largely by advertising and the abundance of ultra-processed foods. For example, the report shows that 42 per cent of school-going adolescents in low- and middle-income countries consume carbonated sugary soft drinks at least once a day and 46 per cent eat fast food at least once a week. Alarmingly, in New Zealand, from 2002 – 2016, the consumption of sugary drinks increased while it was decreasing in those countries, such as the UK, where a sugar-tax had been imposed.

As a result, overweight and obesity levels in childhood and adolescence are increasing worldwide. From 2000 to 2016, the proportion of overweight children between 5 and 19 years of age doubled from 1 in 10 to almost 1 in 5. From 1990 to 2016 the rate of obesity in New Zealand children has doubled.

The greatest burden of malnutrition in all its forms is shouldered by children and adolescents from the poorest and most marginalized communities, the report notes. Only 1 in 5 children aged six months to two years from the poorest households eats a sufficiently diverse diet for healthy growth. A separate New Zealand specific study found that almost one in five children (19.0%) live in households with severe-to moderate food insecurity. And the rates of household food insecurity were higher among certain subgroups, including children in households on low incomes, children in the most deprived neighbourhoods, and children of Pacific and Māori ethnicity.

The report also notes that climate-related disasters cause severe food crises. Drought, for example, is responsible for 80 per cent of damage and losses in agriculture, dramatically altering what food is available to children and families, as well as the quality and price of that food.

To address this growing malnutrition crisis in all its forms, UNICEF New Zealand is issuing an urgent appeal to the government and the private sector to:

Use proven legislation – such as sugar taxes – to reduce demand for unhealthy foods.
Collect, analyse and use good-quality data and evidence to guide action and track progress.
Do the right thing for children, by incentivizing the provision of healthy, convenient and affordable foods.
Contribute to healthy food environments for children and adolescents by using proven approaches, such as accurate and easy-to-understand labelling and stronger controls on the marketing of unhealthy foods.

For photos, broll, the full report, factsheet, graphs and datasets, click here. After 00.01 GMT 15 October, you can browse the special interactive feature on our website or download the report here.


UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

For more information about UNICEF New Zealand and our work, particularly in Aotearoa, visit:

Follow UNICEF New Zealand on Facebook, Instagram and twitter.


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