The hidden adolescent nutrition crisis

Accessible, sustainable and nutritious food is a key ingredient for a stable and healthy society. With competing global crises demanding close attention, it’s easy to overlook one of the universal driving forces: food insecurity. Food insecurity acts in tandem with the climate emergency; current diets cause pollution and demand for resources, and the resulting increase in temperature disrupts food production and causes shortages in crops. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused millions of job losses, orphans and extensive social protection systems, and families have become impoverished and hungry. This amalgamation of problems is leading to new global crises through civil unrest, fighting and mass migration. The climax of these disasters is the world’s most pressing societal challenge: a global nutrition crisis.

The 2021 World Nutrition Report, released on 23 November, presents the most recent data on global diets, highlights priorities for action and serves as a benchmark for holding stakeholders to account. It’s alarming read: Our diets are not getting healthier or more sustainable, and malnutrition persists at dangerous levels.

Global health is threatened by a pernicious cycle of malnourished pregnant women and children, who can only afford the cheapest and nutrient-poor foods, becoming nutrient-deficient adults at high risk of non-communicable diseases debilitating. Out of the six WHO 2025 global targets for maternal, infant and young child nutrition (covering stunting, wasting, low birth weight, anemia, overweight and breastfeeding rate), the world is on the way to just one (50% of infants exclusively breastfed at 6 months). 150 million children under 5 are stunted and 40 million children are overweight. Overall, only half of the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables is consumed per week compared to five times the recommended level of red or processed meat.

Despite an abundance of nutritional data for children under 5, there are no global nutrition goals for older children or adolescents. A series in The Lancet, released on November 29, propels the invisible problem of adolescent nutrition onto the global stage. Adolescence is a particularly nutrient sensitive period, when young people gain 20% and 40% of their adult height and weight, respectively. Nutritional status affects the onset of puberty, reproductive health, and the risk of noncommunicable diseases in adulthood. During adolescence, a period of empowerment, many young people express their free will through food as a social construct, but modern food environments are not conducive to healthy choices: nutrient-poor foods and high in energy are all too readily available, inexpensive and often socially appealing to teens. In 2020, a WHO-UNICEF-Lancet The Commission called on governments to protect children from the harmful marketing of unhealthy foods and sugary drinks. In the series, Lynette Neufeld and her colleagues explain the dangers of covert marketing of nutrient-poor foods to adolescents and stress the importance of social support in providing young people with low-income environments with healthy food choices. Governments must hold food companies accountable for their role in making adolescent diets worse.
Also in the series, Dougal Hargreaves and colleagues explore strategies and interventions to achieve optimal adolescent nutrition. The crucial first step is to collect data to inform nutritional targets, monitor trends and identify priority interventions. We call on the research community to assess and report on the current state of adolescent nutrition around the world. This requires investment from donors and funders who need to engage in nutrition policies for older children and adolescents. Governments need to restrict the availability and affordability of nutrient-poor processed foods, invest in effective advocacy for healthy and sustainable diets, and move beyond single-nutrient interventions. As with all policies affecting young people, young people should be active partners in identifying interventions that are likely to appeal to their peers. Act4Food, a youth-led initiative, calls on citizens of the world to commit to using personal action to galvanize stakeholders to end hunger, improve health and heal the planet.
Adolescent malnutrition is a hidden crisis. Its de-prioritization below coexisting emergencies sends a dangerous message: that nutrition doesn’t matter. Humanity cannot afford this attitude to influence the next generation. the Nutrition for Growth Summit December 7 is a crucial opportunity for governments to make a visible commitment to sustaining adolescent nutrition by reducing malnutrition, improving nutritional environments and developing a sustainable and healthy individual nutrition agency.


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