Human Stories

The First 1,000 Days

How can we feed our young ones in the best possible way, and what impact do these first gulps and bites have later in life? Join us each month as our Editorial Manager and newborn mum Marieke, unfolds the world of food in the first years of life - from formula and breast milk, to likes, dislikes, culture, commerce and changing diets.

Faster than you can count. The UN estimates that worldwide 4.5 babies were born each second in 2021. And another one and another one. That’s 267 per minute, around 385,000 babies per day, or 140 million per year.1

Sometimes a baby makes the news, like Mia, who was born in the Kyiv metro station used as a bomb shelter. Or Neve, the son of New Zealand’s current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the second elected leader in modern history to give birth while in office.

But most of our children are born in the anonymity of a hospital room. If everything goes well, this happens after 9 months within their mum’s womb, or in the case of my son Ezra, after 9 months and 11 days.

The first 1,000 days are critical

The first 1,000 days of life, including a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday, is the crucial period that will create the all-important foundations for a child’s healthy development. A foundation that can impact a child throughout their entire lifespan. The right nutrition and care during the 1000-day window influence whether the child will survive, but also his or her ability to grow, learn and rise out of poverty. As such, it contributes to society’s long-term health, stability and prosperity.

Unfortunately for many parents, providing a child with the right foundations for optimum health in this crucial first period of life is something that’s not always achievable. And when it’s not, children can face an upbringing defined by malnutrition. This doesn’t necessarily mean too few calories, rather it results from deficiencies, excesses, or general imbalances in the diet. Manifesting a number of issues that can follow a child throughout their lives - including being overweight, underweight, suffering from stunting (low height-for-age) and wasting (low weight-for-height), malnutrition can take many forms.3 And each comes with its own long list of issues. For children, society and even the economy. 

In 2016, approximately 462 million adults worldwide were underweight, while 1.9 billion were either overweight or obese.4 In 2020, globally an estimated 149.2 million children under the age of 5 years were suffering from stunting, 45.4 million were wasted, while 38.9 million were overweight or obese.5 This equates to around 1 in 3 children under five globally – or over 200 million – as being either undernourished or overweight.

Malnutrition can manifest in many forms, including stunting, wasting, and being over-/underweight.

Malnutrition can manifest in many forms, including stunting, wasting, and being over-/underweight.

Who is more at risk?

While these nutritional imbalances, caused by excesses and deficiencies, are found all over the world, some regions fare significantly worse than others. In 2020, 94% of all children affected by stunting under 5 years of age lived in Asia or Africa. The same two continents also accounted for 97% of all children under 5 years of age affected by wasting, and 75% of the same age group affected by being overweight.5

Statistically speaking, poverty amplifies the risk of malnutrition, with people who are poor being more likely to be affected by different forms of malnutrition. Only exacerbating the issue, malnutrition also increases healthcare costs, reduces productivity, and slows economic growth. All of which can perpetuate a cycle of poverty and ill-health.3

Where is malnutrition really coming from?

While malnutrition is often thought to stem from a lack of calories or even macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins and fats – in many cases it originates from a lack of micronutrients - vitamins and minerals. In some developing countries, 40 to 50% of children under the age of five suffer from these micronutrient deficiencies. And the impacts have flow-on effects far beyond the health of a child. World Bank economists have even shown that financial losses in some countries can amount to as much as 12 to 16% of gross national product. In India, that works out to around $46 billion a year.6

Read more about hidden hunger here

In Europe, too, malnutrition occurs fairly commonly - though mainly in people with a lower educational level and in lower socioeconomic classes. But even within relatively high-income nations, many live within 'food deserts', where access to affordable and healthy food is limited, leaving families with poor food options resulting in an unhealthy diet with little variety.6

Predictably, this unhealthy diet, along with inadequate levels of physical activity, leads to being overweight and instances of obesity. Currently, one in three children aged 6 to 9 years is overweight or obese in Europe, and this number is on the rise. Childhood obesity goes hand in hand with a range of serious consequences for health and social life in childhood, as well as a higher risk of premature death and disability in adulthood.7

Childhood obesity goes hand in hand with a range of serious consequences for health and social life in childhood.

Childhood obesity goes hand in hand with a range of serious consequences for health and social life in childhood.

Feed into the narrative

As you can see, how we feed our children has far-reaching consequences. In each column, I will focus on one of the many topics around feeding our future generations within the first 1,000 days of their lives.

I want to dive deeper into the sad truth that a toddler can already be overweight and see if there are ways we can break the trend. To understand why children don’t like broccoli. What the facts and fables are around formula milk. And why breast milk is often called the only true superfood.

Although I will touch upon society-wide issues, I will look at them through my own personal lens, as a newborn mum. A mum who’s been breastfeeding for ten months (and counting), but also one who feeds using formula. A mum who is getting food ‘dos and don’ts’ thrown at me from my partner who is a dietician by training, at the nursery, from the midwife, from influencers on Instagram and from fellow new and old parents around me.

And I want to hear from you as well. Because one journey into parenthood is something, but I know there are more parents out there with their own personal beliefs and cultural contexts who can add to the narrative. What do you want to know? What baby food trends and studies have you spotted? Which urban legends do you want to get fact-checked? Where do you see solutions? What is your story?

Let us hear from you at hello@foodunfolded.com.  (Make sure you put "first 1000 days" in the subject line, so your message doesn't get lost!)

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