PARIS • A third of the world's nearly 700 million children under five years old are undernourished or overweight and face lifelong health problems as a consequence, according to a grim United Nations assessment of childhood nutrition released yesterday.
"If children eat poorly, they live poorly," said Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore, unveiling the fund's first State of the World's Children report since 1999. "We are losing ground in the fight for healthy diets."
Problems that once existed at opposite ends of the wealth spectrum have today converged in poor and middle-income countries, the report showed.
Despite a nearly 40 per cent drop in stunting in poor countries from 1990 to 2015, 149 million children aged four or younger are today still too short for their age, a clinical condition that impairs both brain and body development. Another 50 million are afflicted by wasting, a chronic and debilitating thinness also born of poverty.
At the same time, half of youngsters across the globe under five are not getting essential vitamins and minerals, a longstanding problem Unicef has dubbed "hidden hunger".
Over the last three decades, however, another form of child malnutrition has surged across the developing world: Excess weight.
"This triple burden - undernutrition, a lack of crucial micronutrients, obesity - is increasingly found in the same country, sometimes in the same neighbourhood, and often in the same household," said Mr Victor Aguayo, head of the UN children's agency's nutrition programme. "A mother who is overweight or obese can have children who are stunted or wasted."
Across all age groups, more than 800 million people in the world are constantly hungry and another two billion are eating too much of the wrong foods, driving epidemics of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Among children under five, diet during the first 1,000 days after conception is the foundation for physical health and mental development.
And yet, only two in five infants under six months are exclusively breastfed, as recommended. Sales of milk-based formula have risen worldwide by 40 per cent.
Missing vitamins and minerals, meanwhile, can lead to compromised immune systems, poor sight and hearing defects. A lack of iron can cause anaemia and reduced IQ. "It is 'hidden' because you don't notice the impact until it is too late," said Mr Brian Keeley, editor-in-chief of the report. "You don't notice that the child is running a little slower than everyone else, struggling a bit in school."
The rise of obesity, however, is plain to see. The problem was virtually non-existent in poor countries 30 years ago, but today at least 10 per cent of children under five are overweight or obese in three-quarters of low-income nations. Cheap, readily available junk food, often marketed directly to children, has made the problem much worse. "Children are eating too much of what they don't need - salt, sugar and fat," Mr Keeley said.
Progress in fighting undernourishment will also be hampered by climate change, the report warned.
Research by scientists at Harvard University has shown the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is sapping staple food crops of those essential nutrients and vitamins, including zinc, iron and vitamin B.
"The impacts of climate change are completely transforming the food that is available and that can be consumed," Mr Aguayo said.
Making sure every child has access to a healthy diet must become a "political priority" if widespread malnutrition is to be conquered, especially in developing nations, the report said.
Taxes on sugary foods and beverages, regulating the sale of breast-milk substitutes, and limiting the advertising and sale of "junk food" near schools could also make a difference, it concluded.