Fact sheet
18 March 2012

Importance of nutrition

Nutrition is critical for health and development. Better nutrition leads to improved infant, child and maternal health, stronger immune systems, safer pregnancy and childbirth, lower risk of noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and longevity.

Challenges of malnutrition

Malnutrition, in every form, poses a significant threat to human health and is a major contributor to disease and early death for women and children.

Undernutrition accounts for 11% of the global burden of disease, leading to long-term poor health and disability, as well as educational and developmental outcomes. Undernutrition, including vitamin and mineral deficiencies, contributes to about one third of all child deaths, and impairs healthy development and life-long productivity.

Stunting — low height for age compared to WHO child growth standards is a key indicator of chronic undernutrition among infants and young children. Some 20 million suffer from this form of severe acute malnutrition each year. Worldwide, 186 million children are stunted due to undernutrition. Stunting rates among children are highest in Africa and Asia. In south-central Asia, 36% children were affected as of 2010.

Wasting, — low weight for height compared to WHO child growth standards is a symptom of acute undernutrition resulting from insufficient food intake and compounded by a high incidence of infectious diseases, especially diarrhoea.. About 1.5 million children die annually due to wasting.

Wasting demands emergency nutritional interventions to save lives. The world is facing a double burden of malnutrition, meaning both undernutrition and overweight. Overweight and obesity contribute to develop noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, coronary heart diseases, hypertension and stroke, certain types of cancer and other related conditions. According to global figures for 2010, about 43 million children under age 5 are overweight.

Causes and prevention of undernutrition

The major causes of undernutrition are inadequate consumption of food and a vitamins- and mineralpoor diet leading to micronutrient deficiencies, and maternal undernutrition coupled with inadequate child care and disease. Rising food prices, food scarcity in areas of conflict, and natural disasters can also lead to undernutrition by diminishing household access to appropriate and adequate food.

Worldwide, about 20% of deaths among children under 5 could be avoided through (i) exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age, (ii) introduction of appropriate and safe complementary foods at six months of age, and (ii) continuation of breastfeeding for up to two years and beyond. Appropriate feeding practices decrease rates of stunting and obesity and stimulate intellectual development in young children.

The best way to fight malnutrition is by improving nutrition throughout the life course.

WHO response

Nutrition information is required to identify the areas where assistance is most needed. WHO has released international child growth standards for children under 5 years of age that allow to compare children’s nutritional status within and across countries and regions. Also, a nutrition landscape information system (, developed by WHO and partners, profiles the status of nutrition and diet-related diseases as well as the indicators of underlying and basic causes of malnutrition in countries to survey the local situation and track improvement.

Science has moved forward, and evidence-informed actions that will improve nutritional health particularly for the most vulnerable are known. In response, WHO and international experts are working together to provide scientific advice to countries, as well as user-friendly tools (such as the e Library of Essential Nutrition Actions, a web-based scientific library and database for decisionmaking in the field) to stimulate policies and interventions that will save lives.