UN outlines actions to help tackle ‘double threat’ of childhood obesity, undernutrition

A healthy diet can help to alleviate risk factors for a range of chronic diseases linked to obesity. Photo: World Bank/Maria Fleischmann

6 June 2013 – The United Nations health agency has issued new guidance to help low- and middle-income countries tackle the emerging double threat of childhood obesity and undernutrition, and halt the growing burden of associated diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 75 per cent of overweight children live in developing countries, with the prevalence in Africa almost doubling in the last 20 years.

Globally, over 100 million children under five years of age are underweight, the agency noted in a news release, while 165 million are stunted – a better indicator of chronic undernutrition. An estimated 35 per cent of all deaths among children under five are associated with undernutrition. At the same time, some 43 million children under five are overweight or obese.

“While it is vital to maintain efforts to reduce undernutrition, the world needs to do much more to prevent and care for the growing numbers of people that are overweight or obese and living in low- and middle-income countries,” says Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development.

Dr. Branca adds that to avoid a massive explosion of nutrition problems in the next generation, policymakers urgently need to give more attention to improving the nutritional status of pregnant women and adolescent girls who will become mothers of the next generation.

To assist countries, WHO presented a package of 24 essential nutrition actions. These include improving nutrition of pregnant and breastfeeding women; encouraging early initiation of breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, then continued breastfeeding up to 2 years; and promoting appropriate solid foods for young children.

Focusing on the essential nutrition actions, countries can reduce infant and child mortality, improve growth and development, and improve productivity, the agency stated. Countries such as Brazil, Ethiopia and Peru, as well as India’s second most populous state, Maharashtra, have achieved such successes as a result of implementing these actions.

WHO noted that many of these issues are related to inadequacies in the food system. “A food system that does not deliver a sufficient amount of quality food can lead both to poor growth and to excess weight gain,” it said.

“A child who has grown poorly in his first years of life may turn into a short but overweight adolescent and then later in life, develop chronic disease as an adult.”

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