The Issue: Undernutrition
Undernutrition has been characterized as one of the world’s most serious but least addressed problems. The human and economic costs of undernutrition are enormous, falling hardest on women, children and the poor.
Undernutrition claims the lives of 3.5M young children each year, yet it is almost entirely preventable. Within the 1,000 day window from pregnancy to the age of two, the cognitive and physical damage caused by undernutrition is particularly severe and often irreversible. This has profound consequences not only for the child’s future but also for the long-term health and development of families, communities and societies.
What is undernutrition?
Undernutrition is a serious condition in which the body does not get the nutrients it needs to sustain healthy growth and development. It arises when there is inadequate consumption, poor absorption or an excessive loss of nutrients. Undernutrition is a form of malnutrition and sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably.
What causes undernutrition?
Food: Not enough food and not enough diverse, nutritious food.
Care: Poor maternal care and child care practices due to a lack of knowledge about healthy diets and infant care on the part of mothers and other caregivers in the family.
Health: Lack of health services, clean water and sanitation.
In countries where gender inequality is great, there can be high rates of undernutrition as female members of a household will ‘eat least and last.’
Fundamentally, poverty is at the root of undernutrition. Very poor people are generally unable to afford the foods, education or health care they need to nourish themselves or their children.
What’s at stake?
Children who do not get adequate nutrition during the 1,000 days between their mother’s pregnancy and their second birthday can suffer from stunted physical and cognitive development. Impaired cognitive function means a child can have a diminished capacity to learn, leading to lower educational performance and ultimately, lower economic productivity. This in turn can hinder a nation’s economic development. Evidence shows that in countries where childhood undernutrition is pervasive, the loss to GDP can be as high as 2 to 3 percent, not including the indirect costs of malnutrition such as health care and lost wages due to illness.
Undernutrition early in life increases the risk that illnesses become fatal and is also now known to contribute to non-communicable diseases later in life—diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancers.
Undernourished women are more likely to give birth to low birth-weight babies, contributing to a multigenerational cycle of undernutrition.
What can be done?
The evidence is clear. In 2008, The Lancet issued a five-part series on nutrition which provided evidence on the impact of a set of highly effective nutrition interventions focused on the 1,000 day window of opportunity. These interventions have been shown to save lives, reduce disease, and avoid irreversible harm. The evidence also shows that nutrition investments focused in the 1,000 day window have extraordinary returns for long-term global health and prosperity. It is why addressing maternal and child undernutrition has been characterized as one of the best investments the world can make in global development and is paramount to the success of virtually all of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).