Global Health Observatory (GHO)

Underweight in children


Child malnutrition – as measured by poor child growth – is an important indicator for monitoring population nutritional status and health. In 2012, an estimated 17%, or 97 million children under five years of age in developing countries were underweight (low weight-for-age according to the WHO child growth standards). Underweight is most common in the UN regions of Southern Asia (30%), followed by Western, Eastern, and Middle Africa (20%, 19% and 16%, respectively) and South-Eastern Asia (16%). Oceania in 2012 was estimated at 19% underweight with high uncertainty due to scarce data. The situation is better in other UN regions of Eastern, Central and Western Asia, Northern Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, where less than 10% of children were underweight. Children in the poorest households are twice as likely to be underweight as those in the least poor households. Children living in rural areas are more likely to be underweight than those living in urban areas. Childhood malnutrition, including fetal growth restriction, suboptimum breastfeeding, stunting, wasting and Vitamin A and zinc deficiencies, is an underlying cause of death in an estimated 45% of all deaths among children under five years of age. The map and graph present most recent survey data available for each country since 2000.


The proportion of children under five years old in developing countries who were underweight is estimated to have declined by 11 percentage points between 1990 and 2012, from 28% to 17%. This rate of progress is insufficient to meet the MDG target of halving 1990 levels of underweight by 2015. Between 1990 and 2012 good progress has been made in the UN regions of Western Asia (reduction from 13% to 6%), Eastern Asia (reduction from 15% to 3%), Caribbean (reduction from 8% to 3%), Central America (reduction from 11% to 4%) and South America (reduction from 6% to 3%), which already met the MDG target. Even though South-eastern Asia is close to being on track, underweight remains high at 16%. Underweight continues to be very high in Southern Asia (30%). This combined with large population, means that most underweight children live in Southern Asia (53 million in 2012). Rising food prices and the economic crisis may have affected the latest trends in some populations, but it is too early to draw firm conclusions.