Poor diets pose ‘major’ threat to health and planet, warns report

·3-min read
Maryann is severely malnourished, wasted and stunted, and has been in and out of hospital because of this her whole life - Simon Townsley
Maryann is severely malnourished, wasted and stunted, and has been in and out of hospital because of this her whole life - Simon Townsley

Progress on tackling malnutrition is "woefully inadequate", with poor diets causing increasing harm to human health and the planet, according to a new report.

The annual Global Nutrition Report, which looks at the state of the world's food system, said at the current rate of progress it will be impossible to achieve the World Health Organization's nutrition targets by 2025.

The world is off-course to meet eight out of the nine targets, including reducing wasting and stunting in under fives, tackling low birthweight and reducing childhood overweight and adult obesity. The report also urged global leaders to take stronger action in tackling the crisis.

Significant numbers of children remain malnourished: 149.2 million children under five are stunted, 45.4 million children are wasted (meaning they have a low weight to height ratio) and 38.9 million are overweight. Meanwhile, 2.2 billion adults – over 40 per cent – are overweight or obese. No country is on track to stop the rise of obesity.

Disruptions caused by Covid-19 and climate change are knocking countries further off course. Research cited in the report highlights that 118 million more people faced hunger in 2020 than in 2019, while the pandemic also diverted resources and put financing for nutrition at risk.

A malnourished baby receives medical treatment at al Sabeen Maternal Hospital in Sanaa, Yemen - Anadolu Agency /Mohammed Hamoud
A malnourished baby receives medical treatment at al Sabeen Maternal Hospital in Sanaa, Yemen - Anadolu Agency /Mohammed Hamoud

Prof Renata Micha, the chairman of the report’s independent expert group, said that diets across the world have not improved in the past 10 years and are now posing a “major” threat to our health and planet. “There needs to be a step-change in action to improve poor diets and tackle resulting malnutrition in all its forms to achieve the high social, economic and environmental gains possible,” Prof Micha added.

Despite an increase in public health campaigns, fruit and vegetable intake is below the recommended five servings a day, while red and processed meat is on the rise at almost five times the maximum recommendation of one serving a week.

The report also flagged that current diets are impacting the health of the planet, with food demand leading to 35 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. North American diets were said to have the greatest environmental impact – if they were adopted globally, greenhouse gas emissions would rocket.

An additional £8 billion will be needed every year from 2022-30 in order to meet targets on wasting, stunting, anaemia and breastfeeding alone. However, investing in nutrition could lead to gains of £4.2 trillion a year by 2030.

Jean-Michel Grand, from Action Against Hunger UK, said: “Despite the huge technological advances we have made in the past 10 years, our diets aren’t improving. In fact, they’re getting worse.

“On the one hand we are facing a growing hunger pandemic, which saw 118 million more people slide into crisis in 2020, and on the other we have burgeoning levels of obesity. These might sound like chalk and cheese, but they are both examples of malnutrition and both can have a devastating impact on a child's development, health, and wellbeing.”

Shawn Baker, a chief nutritionist for the US Agency for International Development, said: “The global community has the knowledge and resources to tackle the effects of poor diets and malnutrition, so the rates presented in the report are unacceptably high. As we come together at the Nutrition for Growth Summit in December, we must commit to the evidence-based solutions and increased financing needed to tackle these issues.”

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