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‘Malnutrition: Toddlers are almost as often overweight as they are underweight’

A quarter of the world’s overweight children live in Africa, amounting to almost the same number as wasting minors.

The number of overweight children under the age of five is approaching the number that suffer from wasting, according to the Global Nutrition Report, which was released on Wednesday. 

The report quotes the latest Joint Child Malnutrition Estimates: of the world’s 667 million children under five in 2014, 50 million (7.5%) were wasted and 41 million (6%) overweight. 

The United Nations Children’s Fund defines wasting as a weight-for-age two scores or more below the median growth standard. Children are overweight when their body mass index (weight to height ratio) is at or above the 85th percentile and below the 95th, according to the US government’s Centers for Disease Control. 

Asia’s number of overweight children under five is increasing the fastest. But, the Joint Child Malnutrition Estimates stress that Africa’s under five overweight population is also rapidly rising: between 1990 and 2014 it nearly doubled. In 2014, a quarter of overweight children lived in Africa. 

Both wasting and being overweight are considered forms of malnutrition. “Malnutrition and poor diets constitute the number one driver of the global burden of disease. We already know that the annual GDP losses from low weight, poor child growth and micronutrient deficiencies average 11% in Asia and Africa – greater than the loss experienced during the 2008-2010 financial crisis,” the Global Nutrition Report states. 

Most countries have subscribed to the World Health Assembly’s global nutrition targets – two of the targets aim to have no increase in childhood overweight by 2025 and to reduce child wasting to less than 5% by that year. But the report warns: “The world is off course to meet global goals”.  

While a quarter (159-million) of the global under-five population is stunted, this form of malnutrition is declining – but not in Africa and Oceania. 

The report shows that “women’s power and status constitute a particularly important driver of malnutrition: mothers age 18 or under are more likely to have stunted children and children are less likely to be stunted if their mother has a secondary education”.

Authors point out that no country has adopted a “comprehensive approach” to regulating the marketing of foods and nonalcoholic beverages to children.  

They caution that governments and donors will need to triple their commitments to nutrition over the next decade. “Investing in ending malnutrition is one of the most cost-effective steps governments can take: every $1 invested in proven nutrition programs offers benefits worth $16.” 

The report concludes: “All stakeholders need to come to grips with the ‘new normal’ of dealing with  malnutrition, in all its forms [manifesting in being overweight or underweight], in the same place at the same time – a problem for nearly half of all countries.”

Mia Malan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa. She has worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, DC, winning more than 30 awards for her radio, print and television work.