Improving attention to nutrition in health systems could save 3.7 million lives by 2025

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Health services need to place greater emphasis on nutrition, ensuring it is optimal at every stage of a person’s life: a new report released today by the organization supports the World Health Organization (WHO). It is estimated that adequate investments in nutrition could save 3.7 million lives by 2025.[1]

“In order to provide quality health services and achieve universal health coverage, nutrition should be considered one of the cornerstones of essential health services,” said Dr Naoko Yamamoto, Deputy Director-General of WHO. “We also need environments that are more conducive to healthy diets, that allow people to adopt healthy diets.”

Essential health services in any context must have strong nutritional components, but it will be up to countries to decide which interventions best support their national health policies, strategies and plans.

Key interventions include the provision of iron and folic acid supplements as part of antenatal care; delayed locking of the umbilical cord to ensure that babies receive the important nutrients they need after birth; breastfeeding promotion, protection and support; dietary advice, for example to reduce the intake of free sugar[2] in adults and children, or by limiting salt intake to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Investing in nutrition improvement actions will bring countries closer to the goal they have set: achieving universal health coverage and achieving sustainable development goals. This investment can also benefit the economy, with every US dollar spent by donors on essential nutrition programs returning US $ 16 to the local economy.[3]

Globally, progress has been made in the food sector, but major challenges remain. Stunting (low height-to-age ratio) decreased globally: Between 1990 and 2018, the prevalence of stunting in children under five fell from 39.2% to 21.9% or from 252.5 million to 149.0 million children, although progress has been much greater than moderate in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Obesity, however, is on the rise. The prevalence of childhood obesity increased from 4.8% to 5.9% between 1990 and 2018, with an increase of more than 9 million children. Adult overweight and obesity are also on the rise in nearly all regions and countries, with the number of overweight people reaching 1.3 billion in 2016, of which 650 million (13% of the world’s population) are obese .

Obesity is a major risk factor for diabetes; cardiovascular disease (mainly heart disease and stroke) ¸ muscle and joint disorders (especially osteoarthritis – a very debilitating degenerative joint disease); and some cancers (endometrium, breast, ovary, prostate, gallbladder, kidney and colon).

Giving higher priority to nutrition by health services is essential to address both aspects of the “double burden” of malnutrition. “The Essential Nutrition Actions” is a collection of nutritional actions aimed at addressing this “double burden” of underweight and overweight and providing countries with a tool to integrate nutritional interventions into their national health and development policies.


[1] World Bank: Source: Shekar M, Kakietek J, D’Alimonte M, Sullivan L, Walters D, Rogers H, Dayton Eberwein J, Soe-Lin S, Hecht R. Investing in nutrition. The basis for development. An investment framework for achieving the Global Nutrition Targets. World Bank, Achievements for Development, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, CIFF, 1000 days. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/963161467989517289/pdf/104865-REVISED-Investing-in-Nutrition-FINAL.pdf
[2] Free sugars include monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, as well as naturally occurring sugars in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit juice concentrates.
[3] Development initiatives. Global Nutrition Report 2017: Feeding the SDGs. Bristol, UK: Development Initiatives, 2017

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