New mothers, infants and adolescents face challenges to healthy food and nutrition - research shows

A mother, facing the camera, holds her baby. Photo ©UNICEF Guatemala/2019/Escobar.Whether it is Australia or Serbia, Africa or the USA, huge challenges are preventing new mothers, their infants and adolescents from eating healthy food and getting adequate nutrition.

As we enter the festive season, everyone is thinking about food, but two new reports (opens in a new window)from UNICEF (opens in a new window)and Western Sydney University show that, for too many children and their families around the world, including here in Australia, regular access to healthy food and the nutrition they need is a significant challenge.

The two reports (opens in a new window)- Feeding My Child: How mothers experience nutrition across the world (opens in a new window)and Food and Me: How adolescents experience nutrition across the world (opens in a new window)- call on governments and business to step up and take more responsibility for mothers, their infants and adolescents, in order to help them navigate the host of challenges and influences that impact upon them accessing good nutritional choices in their diets.

“Among many other things, adolescents and mothers in Australia and around the world say they need better, more easily comprehensible food labelling; tighter regulation of food marketing and mechanisms for holding food companies to account for promoting unhealthy food, but these reports highlight the fact that the challenge is far bigger.” said Tony Stuart, CEO of UNICEF Australia. “We need to change the relationship our societies have with food and reorient it to healthy, nutritious food – and governments and business have key roles to play in this reboot.”

“Governments and business need to grapple with the fact that our entire system and culture is geared unfairly towards unhealthy eating,” said Professor Virginia Schmied, lead author of Feeding My Child. “It’s partly that healthy food is often expensive or not always available to communities. But it’s also about our cultures of eating and food preparation. We live in a time-poor society, meaning that our children eat too many highly processed, packaged and fast foods. This is compounded by the aggressive marketing of unhealthy foods to children and their families. Many children eat meals on their own, meaning they miss out on the role modelling their adult family members provide. And mothers don’t always have the information they need to understand which foods to feed their children to meet their growth needs.”

The Young and Resilient Research Centre (opens in a new window)from Western Sydney University conducted creative and participatory workshops with over 550 new mothers and 600 adolescents in 18 countries to take a deep dive into their experiences of diet and nutrition, with the aim of channeling their insights into policy and practice internationally. These reports are the first ever qualitative, user-centred and comparative study of adolescent and maternal diet and nutrition at an international scale.

The reports document two critical time points in children’s growth: their first 1000 days of life, which sees mothers transition their children from breastmilk to solid foods, and adolescence, which is a period of rapid growth and development [and a time when children bed down healthy eating habits that can carry them through life]. They document how adolescents and new mothers who are raising very young children think about food; when, what, how and with whom they eat; and how they think things need to change to support children’s healthy eating.

The reports reveal surprising insights into the influences on the food choices being made by new mothers and adolescents, including: food availability; quality; economics; knowledge of nutrition and food groups; social status or background; preference; culture; family and community support; government support; marketing; environment; consumption location; peer pressure; and perception of sources of expertise; among many others. A cross-section of these findings are outlined in the accompanying fact sheet.

“These reports are important studies that further support previous findings outlined in last year’s UNICEF State of the World’s Children Report, which identified a triple burden of malnutrition: Undernutrition, hidden hunger, caused by a lack of essential nutrients, and overweight as a major issue across the globe for children and adolescents alike ” said Dr Catharine Fleming, lead author of Food and Me.

“The 2019 report found poor eating and feeding practices start from the earliest days of a child’s life, a trajectory that begins when too many young children are introduced to the wrong kind of diet when they begin transitioning to soft or solid foods around the six-month mark,” she said. “Then, as children grow older, their exposure to unhealthy food becomes alarming, driven largely by inappropriate marketing and advertising, the abundance of ultra-processed foods in cities, but also in remote areas, as well as the increasing availability of fast food and highly sweetened beverages. As a result, over-weight and obesity levels in childhood and adolescence are increasing worldwide.

The two new reports take these findings further and provide us with a direct voice and key insights into the pressures that impact upon the capacity of new mothers and adolescents to choose a nutritious diet. At the same time, they highlight the needs and expectations mothers and adolescents have about the support they require to do so successfully.

Among the large number of findings in these reports:

  • Mothers said that breastfeeding is best for their babies, yet many infants receive breastmilk substitutes and other liquids from birth or in the first few months of life;
  • The dietary intake of young children aged 6 months to two years is poor and only 16% of children aged 6 months to 2 years consume food from at least six food groups daily;
  • Mothers diets also lack diversity;
  • Mothers continue to bear the burden of ensuring healthy diets for their children;
  • In general, mothers recognise what is healthy and unhealthy foods, however they do not always have the money to purchase healthy food, particularly in lower income settings; of nutritious and healthy
  • Family members are influential in decisions about nutrition, but grandmothers are not as influential as expected;
  • Health professionals are the ‘go to’ people for mothers for information about food and nutrition;
  • Family, social media and peers are the greatest influences on food choice for adolescents;
  • Adolescents across all low-and high-income countries consistently identified financial constraints as the greatest barrier to healthy eating;
  • Adolescents said their food choices are based on the ease of access to food sources, noting the ready availability of ultra-processed foods in their everyday surrounds and the lack of access to healthy foods at school;
  • Adolescents were highly connected on social media and this directly influences their choices and high rates of body dissatisfaction.

The ‘Feeding My Child’ and ‘Food and Me’ reports were officially released by Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s global Executive Director, in a global online event today from 9:30 AM – 11:00 AM AEDT.


24 November 2020

For further information please contact Brinsley Marlay, External Communications Manager, Policy, Programs & Advocacy,
UNICEF Australia (opens in a new window)