nutritionThe Nutrition Programme contributes to the improvement of the food and nutritional status of populations of countries in the African Region, particularly vulnerable groups (babies, young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers).

Although the Region is one of the world’s most food-insecure regions and is burdened by malnutrition, it is also facing a newer but growing obesity and diet-related chronic disease burden. Nutrition problems persist in many countries.

Twenty of the 34 countries with the world’s highest burdens of malnutrition, accounting for 90% of the global burden, are in the Region and child undernutrition causes 45% of all deaths in children less than 5 years of age.

There has been little change in the prevalence of stunting (i.e. being under the expected height for age) in the Region – estimated at 41.6% in 1990, 35.6% in 2011 and 35.0% in 2012.

The prevalence of being underweight for age among children less than 5 years of age went down from 23.6% during the period 1991–2001 to 17.5% during the period 2002–2012, a slow but significant decrease.

Undernutrition, obesity and diet-related chronic diseases are all rooted in nutritional health during the first 1000 critical days of a child’s life. Therefore, the importance of maternal and child nutrition cannot be overemphasized. In the Region, years of nutritional neglect have led to a cycle of malnutrition and poor health, beginning in utero, continuing throughout childhood and adolescence, and transferring to the next generation with the birth of a malnourished, low-birth-weight baby.

Malnourished children are less likely to go to school, less likely to stay there, more likely to struggle academically, and earn less than their better-fed peers.

The underlying causes of most nutrition problems in the Region are chronic poverty; food insecurity – an inadequate supply of safe and nutritious food in quantity and quality; poor access to health services; an unhygienic environment; and poor quality water and sanitation.

The HIV epidemic has also had a fundamental effect on infant and young child feeding. Without preventive interventions, approximately one third of infants born to HIV-positive mothers contract HIV through mother-to-child transmission, becoming infected in the womb, during birth, or while breastfeeding. Recently, urbanization  has led to changes in the dietary patterns and lifestyles of individuals, not all of them positive, further complicating nutrition issues in the Region. These factors are compounded by low levels of education, especially for women, cultural taboos and suboptimal feeding patterns.


There have been active partnerships with key stakeholders and partners in the implementation and promotion of key activities such as:

  • the promotion of optimal foetal growth and development using Essential Nutrition Action as the entry point;
  • capacity building on the Integrated Infant and Young Child Feeding Counseling Course;
  • implementation of Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) in the context of HIV/AIDS;
  • implementation and monitoring of the International Code of Marketing of Breast milk Substitutes;
  • and training on the WHO Child Growth Standard.

There have also been increased efforts at mainstreaming nutrition into MNCH and HIV services at various forums. Countries have also been sensitized and provided technical orientation on the need to revitalize nutrition surveillance in countries.

Dietary habits are often rooted in local and regional traditions. National strategies need to be culturally appropriate and be able to challenge cultural influences and to respond to changes over time. Dietary recommendations include the following:

  • achieve energy balance and a healthy weight
  • limit energy intake from total fats and shift fat consumption away from saturated fats to unsaturated fats and towards the elimination of trans-fatty acids
  • increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, and legumes, whole grains and nuts
  • limit the intake of free sugars
  • limit salt (sodium) consumption from all sources and ensure that salt is iodized.

For more information please contact

Dr Adelheid Werimo Onyango
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