10 facts on nutrition
Updated August 2017
Nutrition is a critical part of health and development. Better nutrition is related to improved infant, child and maternal health, stronger immune systems, safer pregnancy and childbirth, lower risk of non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease), and longevity.
Healthy children learn better. People with adequate nutrition are more productive and can create opportunities to gradually break the cycles of poverty and hunger.
Malnutrition, in every form, presents significant threats to human health. Today the world faces a double burden of malnutrition that includes both undernutrition and overweight, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
WHO is providing scientific advice and decision-making tools that can help countries take action to address all forms of malnutrition to support health and wellbeing for all, at all ages.
This fact file explores the risks posed by all forms of malnutrition, starting from the earliest stages of development.
Fact 1: Malnutrition contributes to disease and early deaths for mothers and childrenUndernutrition, including vitamin and mineral deficiencies, accounts for about one third of all child deaths, and impairs healthy development and life-long productivity. At the same time, growing rates of overweight are linked to a rise in chronic diseases. The result is a double burden of malnutrition.
Fact 2: A key indicator of chronic malnutrition is stuntingStunting is when children are too short for their age group compared to the WHO child growth standards. About 155 million children globally are stunted, according to 2016 figures, resulting from not enough food, a vitamin- and mineral-poor diet, inadequate child care and disease. As growth slows down, brain development lags and stunted children learn poorly. Stunting rates among children are highest in Africa and Asia. In Eastern Africa 37% were affected as of 2016 and 34% in Southern Asia.
Fact 3: About 1.5 million children die annually due to wastingWasting and bilateral oedema are severe forms of malnutrition - resulting from acute food shortages and compounded by illness. Rising food prices, food scarcity in areas of conflict, and natural disasters diminish household access to appropriate and adequate food, all of which can lead to wasting. Wasting demands emergency nutritional interventions to save lives.
Fact 4: Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are still prevalent worldwideEssential vitamins and minerals in the diet are vital to boost immunity and healthy development. Vitamin A, zinc, iron and iodine deficiencies are primary public health concerns. Globally, about 33% of women of reproductive age, and 42% of children 6-59 months of age are anaemic, with up to one-half considered to be amenable to iron supplementation. Vitamin A deficiency affects 29% of children 6-59 months of age in low- and middle-income countries and is a risk factor for blindness and for mortality from measles and diarrhoea. Progress has been made in reducing iodine deficiency globally and it was estimated that the populations of only 25 countries had inadequate iodine intakes in 2015 (down from 110 countries in 1993).
Fact 5: Undernutrition during pregnancy creates risksMaternal undernutrition, common in many low- and middle-income countries, leads to poor fetal development and higher risk of pregnancy complications. Together, maternal and child undernutrition account for more than 10 percent of the global burden of disease.
Fact 6: Increased breastfeeding could prevent 823 000 deaths in children under 5 yearsWHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months, introducing age-appropriate and safe complementary foods at six months, and continuing breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond. Appropriate feeding decreases rates of stunting and obesity and stimulates intellectual development in young children. Breastfeeding prevents breast and ovarian cancer in mothers.
Fact 7: Nutrition is critical for adolescent girls to avoid anaemiaNutritional problems in adolescents start during childhood and continue into adult life. Anaemia is a key nutritional problem in adolescent girls. Preventing early pregnancies and assuring adequate intakes of essential nutrients for developing girls can reduce maternal and child deaths later, and stop cycles of malnutrition from one generation to the next. Globally, anaemia affects 40% of pregnant women.
Fact 8: About 41 million children under age five are overweight*The rise in overweight and obesity worldwide is a major public health challenge. People of all ages and backgrounds face this form of malnutrition. As a consequence, rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other diet-related conditions are escalating worldwide. These are very difficult to treat in places with limited resources and with already overburdened health systems.
*According to 2016 figures.