Nutrition and
life-saving food

A good start in life for every child

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Nutrition: Why it matters

When children get the right food at the right time their brains and bodies develop the way they should. When this doesn’t happen, malnutrition occurs. It robs children of their futures and and leaves young lives hanging in the balance.

UNICEF is the world’s leading organisation in preventing and treating all forms of malnutrition. Since 1990, the percentage of undernourished children worldwide has almost halved. But we still have a lot of work to do. Today about 200 million children’s lives are at risk because they are malnourished — almost twice as many suffer from deficiencies in vitamins and other essential micronutrients.

We’re determined to end all forms of hunger for children everywhere. We empower communities and strengthen systems to prevent malnutrition before it occurs. And when it does, we’re there to provide all the resources needed to save lives.

Children eating fresh fruits in the Solomon Islands. When children get the food and nutrients they need to develop it helps communities to thrive and leads to a more prosperous future.
UNICEF/Sokhin

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How does malnutrition affect children?

Stunting: When children don't get enough food and nutrients growing up.

When children don’t get the food and nutrients they need as they grow up it can cause stunting. The most noticeable sign of stunting is that children are much shorter than they should be for their age. However, they also suffer irreversible damage to their bodies and brains, which affects their chance to have a healthy and happy life in the future. Stunting affected an estimated 22 per cent or 149.2 million children under 5 globally in 2020.

Acute malnutrition: When children lose weight rapidly because of a sudden lack of nutritious food.

Acute malnutrition happens when a child doesn’t get enough appropriate food and weighs too little for their height. These children become very thin and frail – a condition known as wasting. This can happen very quickly if a child becomes ill or in the event of a humanitarian crisis. When acute malnutrition becomes severe, children are at high risk of dying. In 2020, wasting continued to threaten the lives of an estimated 6.7 per cent or 45.4 million children under 5 globally.

Obesity: When children get too much of the wrong food.

It’s not just undernourishment that’s an issue. Getting too much of the wrong food, can cause children to become overweight, which has an effect on their health and happiness. Obesity can lead to serious health problems in later life. An estimated 5.7 per cent or 38.9 million children under 5 around the world were overweight in 2020.

Preventing malnutrition

For children who survive it, malnutrition has lifelong consequences, affecting their performance in school and hence future career prospects. This has an impact on entire populations, contributing to a cycle of poverty. That’s why we’re doing everything we can to work with communities and governments to prevent malnutrition and break that vicious cycle.

We’re there for families right from the beginning. We support expecting mothers to have a safe pregnancy, so they give birth to healthy babies and we support the provision of healthcare and essential micronutrients throughout childhood. In places like Liberia, we’ve helped mothers in remote locations get a better understanding of child health and nutrition, so they can go on to inform and strengthen their own communities.

Did you know that every £1 spent fighting child malnutrition delivers £16 worth of social, economic and environmental benefits? Watch this video to find out how.

Meet Yassa, a community health worker in Liberia

Yassah with her 6-month-old baby, Watta at a Unicef nutrition workshop. Find out more about leaving a gift in your Will in our Gifts in Wills guide

Yassa is a community health worker in Liberia, West Africa. She joined the local healthcare team after her own daughter, Watta, became malnourished.

With support from UNICEF, Yassa learned about the importance of a nutritious diet and now passes on her knowledge to other mothers in her community.

When communities have access to the right knowledge, they can prevent malnutrition and break the cycle of poverty that it contributes to.

GIVING A CHILD THE BEST START IN LIFE

Icon, graphic: mother and child, happy healthy start, heart
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The first 1,000 days from conception are the most critical in a child’s life.

Without enough of the nutrients they need, children can suffer from stunting, when their bodies and brains don’t develop the way they should. The condition currently affects nearly a quarter of children under five.

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Treating malnutrition when it happens

Despite amazing progress, each year we still treat millions of children for malnutrition. Conflict and disasters can quickly put children in danger and, in many parts of the world, lack of access to services and information leaves families vulnerable.

When three-week-old Valicious’ mother died in Sierra Leone, his father struggled to give him the food he needed to stay healthy. He was admitted to hospital with severe acute malnutrition at three months old, weighing less than a newborn baby. Despite his poor condition, thanks to medical and nutrition support from UNICEF, Valicious made a full recovery.

 

Valicious was treated with therapeutic milk in a UNICEF-supported health centre. His father now knows to take him to a clinic regularly for health check ups.
UNICEF/Dawe

200 million

200 million children's lives are currently at risk due to malnutrition

80%

UNICEF provides about 80% of the world's life-saving food

5 million

With UNICEF's support, about 5 million children were reached with therapeutic feeding and care in 2020.

Life-saving food in emergencies

Conflicts and disasters can have a devastating effects on families’ ability to access nutritious food, putting huge numbers of children at risk of malnutrition. When an emergency hits, UNICEF leads the global response, coordinating other humanitarian organisations to deliver life-saving food to where it’s needed as quickly as possible.

Still, conflicts around the world leave around 350 million children in need of humanitarian aid every year. In Bangladesh, one of the largest crises of recent times forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people to flee violence in Myanmar. UNICEF coordinated a massive humanitarian response. We screened more than 225,000 Rohingya children for malnutrition and treated nearly 10,000 who were severely malnourished.

A health worker examines a Rohingya refugee child with a mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) band to determine whether they are acutely malnourished.
UNICEF/Brown

What do we mean by life-saving food?

Graphic icon to represent life-saving food

We use high-energy peanut paste that can be eaten straight from the packet to treat severely malnourished children.

Icon, graphic: child protection

It's cheap, easy to supply, and a course can bring a severely malnourished child back to health in just 4-6 weeks.

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A regular gift from you can help even more mums and babies get the nutrition they need when it matters most. Just £20 a month can provide essential iron and folic acid for 7 expectant mums.

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