NEW DELHI: Children under the age of two are not getting adequate food or nutrients they need to thrive and grow well, leading to irreversible developmental harm, according to a new UNICEF report which warned that COVID-19 pandemic could worsen the situation.
The report titled 'Fed to Fail? The Crisis of Children's Diets in Early Life' was released by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit this week.
The study was conducted after discussions with mothers and it was found that about one in three young children in Australia, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Serbia and Sudan are fed at least one processed or ultra-processed food or drink daily.
The report warned that rising poverty, inequality, conflict, climate-related disasters, and health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are contributing to an ongoing nutrition crisis among the world's youngest that has shown little sign of improvement in the last 10 years.
"Our discussions with mothers found that about one in three young children in Australia, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Serbia and Sudan were fed at least one processed or ultra-processed food or drink daily," the report said.
The assertion was made by the mothers during a focussed group discussion, it said.
The report said these products are highly available, cheap and convenient, and some are marketed with misleading nutrition claims because legislation to prevent inappropriate marketing is missing, inadequate or poorly implemented.
It was also found that Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India experience powerful social norms that exclude them from food-purchase decisions.
"We asked mothers and nutrition specialists in 18 countries how decisions are made on what to feed young children. We found that mothers in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India experience powerful social norms that exclude them from food-purchase decisions," the report stated.
UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said, "The report's findings are clear: When the stakes are highest, millions of young children are being fed to fail."
Poor nutritional intake in the first two years of life can irreversibly harm children's rapidly growing bodies and brains, impacting their schooling, job prospects and futures.
"While we have known this for years, there has been little progress on providing the right kind of nutritious and safe foods for the young. In fact, the ongoing COVID-19 disruptions could make the situation much worse," the official noted.
In an analysis of 91 countries, the report found that only half of children aged 6-23 months are being fed the minimum recommended number of meals a day, while just a third consume the minimum number of food groups they need to thrive.
Further analysis of 50 countries with available trend data revealed these poor feeding patterns have persisted throughout the last decade, it said.
As the pandemic continues to disrupt essential services and drives more families into poverty, the report found that COVID-19 is also affecting how families feed their children.
"For example, a survey conducted among urban households in Jakarta found that half of families have been forced to reduce nutritious food purchases. As a result, the percentage of children consuming the minimum recommended number of food groups fell by a third in 2020, compared to 2018," it said.
The report further noted that children carry the scars of poor diets and feeding practices for life.
An insufficient intake of nutrients found in vegetables, fruits, eggs, fish and meat needed to support growth at an early age puts children at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, potentially, death.
Children under the age of two are most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition -- stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, and overweight and obesity -- as a result of poor diets, due to their greater need for essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life.
Globally, UNICEF estimates that more than half of children under the age of five with wasting -- around 23 million children -- are younger than two years of age, while the prevalence of stunting increases rapidly between six months and two years, as children's diets fail to keep pace with their growing nutritional needs.
According to the report, children aged 6-23 months living in rural areas or from poorer households are significantly more likely to be fed poor diets compared to their urban or wealthier peers.
Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF representative in India, said, "The fallout from COVID-19 has compounded the nutrition-related challenges. The effective delivery of health, nutrition and social protection services is crucial if we are to maximise the multisectoral investments that impact a child's nutrition status."
Keeping girls in schools and delaying the age of marriage is also critical.
"We must realise that if children needed nutrition interventions before the pandemic, they need nutrition support now more than ever before. Containing COVID-19 and stopping malnutrition are equally important and urgent for protecting the children in India," she added.