Every year UNICEF issues an authoritative review called the "State of the World’s Children". GAIN is proud to have worked closely with UNICEF on its 2019 report issued in London yesterday. The focus of this year’s report is on nutrition and diets. The State of the World’s Children last addressed malnutrition 20 years ago, and much has changed since then: child undernutrition has improved in many countries but remains a large burden globally, while obesity and related noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease have increased.
Chapter 2, "Feeding a child for life", draws on contributions from GAIN about the unique nutritional needs of adolescents, what they eat and why. We analysed Global School-based Student Health Survey data on fruit, vegetable, soda and fast food consumption among adolescents 12-17 years of age from 72 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania. Findings were highlighted globally and by region, food systems type and national income per person. Overall, adolescent diets tend to be low in nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables, but high in sugary drinks and fast foods. The quality of adolescents’ diets matters because food preferences are set in these formative years. And we know from well-established data that unhealthy diets contribute to skyrocketing levels of overweight and obesity globally.
What were the headline findings from our study?
35% ate fruits less than once per day
21% ate vegetables less than once per day
43% drank soda at least once per day
46% ate fast food at least once per week
Importantly, fast food consumption is much more frequent when street foods are considered. For example, in a separate study among adolescent girls from low- and middle-income countries, 93% consumed fast food at least weekly.
There are also significant regional differences. Fruit consumption appears to be particularly low in South and East Asia (40% less than daily) and vegetable consumption low in Latin America (25% less than daily). Adolescents in Latin America drink the most soda universally (63% daily), but African adolescents are not far behind (53% daily), although there is more variation across countries. Adolescents in countries with higher income (61% daily) and more developed food systems (51% daily) also drink more soda.
In a separate study among adolescent girls from low- and middle-income countries, 93% consumed fast food at least weekly.
The overall findings are worrying. Across the globe, adolescents do not eat enough fruits and vegetables and consume too much soda and fast food. The specific dietary challenges vary somewhat by region, income and type of food system, requiring specific attention by subgroup. Unhealthy diets among adolescents, along with low physical activity, are contributing to the coexistence of undernutrition, overweight or obesity and noncommunicable diseases, which can harm adolescents now and in later life as well as the next generation.
GAIN is working with adolescents in innovative ways. For example, in Bangladesh we are running a campaign to motivate one million adolescents to sign up for a pocket money pledge - a commitment to buy healthy snacks rather than junk food with their pocket money. This social movement approach empowers adolescents to transform the food system themselves. Improving adolescents’ diets requires creative interventions like this that harness their widely shared values and are best achieved by including adolescents in the design process. We need more and more imaginative ways to involve young people in reshaping their diets for better long-term health and well-being.