The Impact of Malnutrition on Kids
Malnutrition can take on many forms – wasting (low weight for height), stunting (low height for age), underweight (low weight for age), or overweight or obese (above healthy weight for height). The common thread among these different forms is that kids are not receiving the right amount of nutrients they need to be healthy.
Globally, malnutrition affects many children under the age of 5, with 149 million that are stunted, 45 million that are below a healthy weight and 39 million that are overweight or obese. Malnutrition has a significant impact on kids’ health. Chronic undernutrition can lead to stunting, for example, which can have long-term effects on a child reaching their full growth potential, or it can irreversibly impair their cognitive development and, as a result, negatively affect their academic performance. Ultimately, these could have long-term impacts on future work prospects and financial stability.
On the other side of the spectrum, being overweight or obese can increase the risk for diet-related noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Chronic diseases have a significant global impact. In fact, diabetes affects 422 million people across the world and heart disease is the leading cause of death globally. If left untreated or not managed, these chronic diseases put people at risk for serious health complications from heart attacks to strokes and can even lead to death.
Factors Contributing to Malnutrition
Malnutrition can be driven by social determinants of health, including poverty or economic instability. When families struggle financially, it can lead to food insecurity and lack of access to healthy foods or diversity in food choices. Food insecurity has had a significant global impact. It’s estimated that almost 690 million people around the world went hungry in 2019 and another 83-132 million could be food insecure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many families also don’t have access to healthcare, which can be due to financial instability or living in an underserved community that has limited or no healthcare services available. Limited access to healthcare may make it difficult to identify and address malnutrition in children, as malnutrition screening is not always part of routine health check-ups. Even if measurements like height and weight are taken, children at risk could be overlooked since pediatricians often have a long list of items to assess.
Parents also may not know the importance of providing diverse foods in the diet or how to balance carbohydrates, protein, and fat so their kids have the nutrition needed for health and growth. Some may struggle with picky eaters. Picky eating behaviors like neophobia – the resistance to try new foods – or selective eating disorder – the inability or unwillingness to eat certain types of foods – can be common problems among kids and can lead to children eating more high-calorie foods that are low in nutritional value. Providing kids and parents with nutrition education is key for preventing and treating malnutrition – both undernutrition and overnutrition.
Approaches to Tackle Malnutrition in Kids
Addressing malnutrition starts with regular screening and early identification of children at risk. If kids are identified as malnourished or at risk, they can then receive nutrition intervention to improve their health.
Collaborative partnerships among communities, organizations and governments that focus on early identification and intervention for malnutrition and nutrition education for kids and their parents are important for tackling this issue.
Abbott partnered with Children’s Mercy Research Institute, Children International and Hallmark to develop and distribute the mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) z-score tape, an inexpensive, paper-based device that resembles a traditional measuring tape with indicators that signal malnutrition risk in children. Screening can be done quickly and is effective in identifying children at risk for malnutrition.
Future Well™ Kids is a healthy lifestyle education program created by Abbott and the Abbott Fund. The curriculum was developed in partnership with Discovery Education, the worldwide ed-tech leader whose state-of-the-art digital platform supports learning wherever it takes place. Future Well Kids teaches kids about noncommunicable diseases, and how they can stay healthy and reduce their risk of developing these chronic diseases later in life through healthy lifestyle changes like creating a nutritious meal plan and setting physical fitness goals.
Collaborative partnerships and initiatives that promote nutrition and healthy lifestyles for kids and their families play a critical role in preventing and addressing malnutrition in all its forms. When kids are well-nourished, they are getting key nutrients that can support their growth and development and set them up for lifelong health.
 UNICEF/WHO/World Bank Group. Joint Child Malnutrition Estimates 2021 edition.  WHO. Diabetes Fact Sheet. April 2021.  WHO. Cardiovascular Disease Fact Sheet. June 2021.  FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. The State of Food Security and Nutrition Around the World 2020 edition.