Rising temperatures caused by climate change are contributing to low diet quality and malnutrition among young children in many parts of the world, researchers say.
Warmer temperatures now equal or exceed the impact of traditional causes of child malnutrition and low quality diets, such as poverty, poor sanitation, and low levels of education, according to investigators from the University of Vermont.
“Certainly, future climate changes have been predicted to affect malnutrition, but it surprised us that higher temperatures are already showing an impact,” study co-author Meredith Niles said in a school news release. She’s an assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences and a fellow at the university’s Gund Institute for Environment.
The researchers assessed diet diversity among 107,000 children, 5 years and younger, in 19 countries in Asia, Africa, and South America, using three decades of temperature, precipitation, socioeconomic, ecological, and geographic data.
Of the six regions included in the study — Asia, Central and South America, North, West and Southeast Africa — five had significant temperature-related reductions in young children’s diet diversity.
Diet diversity is used to measure diet quality and intake of iron, folic acid, zinc, and vitamins A and D — all critical for child development. A lack of such nutrients is a cause of malnutrition, which affects one-third of children younger than 5.
On average, children in the study had eaten foods from only 3 of 10 food groups — including meat and fish, legumes, dark leafy greens, and cereal greens — in the previous 24 hours.
In comparison, diet diversity in emerging economies or wealthier countries is more than double this average (about 7 out of 10 food groups for children 6 and under).
“Diet diversity was already low for this group,” said study co-author Brendan Fisher, a professor and director of the university’s environmental program. “These results suggest that if we don’t adapt, climate change could further erode a diet that already isn’t meeting adequate child micronutrient levels.”
The findings were published Jan. 14 in the journal Environmental Research Letters.