Mapping local patterns of childhood overweight and wasting in low- and middle-income countries between 2000 and 2017

The profound impacts of childhood malnutrition, including both undernutrition and overweight, affect the economic, social and medical well-being of individuals, families, communities and nations1,2. Undernutrition has been the most common form of malnutrition in LMICs3, but as populations experience economic growth, urbanization and demographic change, overweight is an emerging problem, leading to a double burden of malnutrition (DBM). DBM may be manifested at the individual level as stunting in childhood followed by overweight in adulthood4. At the household level, research has focused on maternal and child indicators of malnutrition, whereas at the population level, prevalence of both undernutrition with overweight has been reported5. In children, DBM can be defined using different combinations of the various indicators of undernutrition (wasting and/or stunting) and overweight, obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases (NCDs)6. While the most studied type of double burden is that of stunting and obesity, it is mostly applicable at the individual level among overweight adults who were previously stunted from chronic undernutrition during childhood. Wasting is associated with high rate of child mortality, whereas stunting has significant negative impact across the life course and is highly predictive of economic outcomes7. Public health nutrition programs designed to address undernutrition may exacerbate overweight8, thus a comprehensive understanding of DBM at the population level is crucial for the design of effective interventions.

Our aim was to determine the prevalence of overweight among children under 5 years old in LMICs (N = 105) for policy-relevant administrative units (district, state, and national level) and determine DBM by combining these estimates with those of wasting prevalence. As there is no broad consensus on the preferred international child growth standards for assessing overweight and obesity among children under 5 (refs. 9,10), we used weight-for-height above established cutoff points defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). This was to analyze overweight estimates in relation to the Global Nutrition Targets (GNTs), which were developed based on WHO standards. Prevalence of early childhood overweight (including obesity) is defined as the proportion of children under 5 with a weight-for-height zscore (WHZ) more than two standard deviations (s.d.) above the WHO sex- and age-specific median growth reference standards10. This is different from the definition for children between the ages of 5–18 years, which is above one s.d. for overweight and above two s.d. for obese. We selected wasting as the comparative indicator against overweight, as both share recommended population prevalence ranges, which can be used to create bivariate categories for DBM. Child wasting prevalence is defined as the proportion of children under 5 with a WHZ more than two s.d. below the median WHO growth standards10. Using WHZs allowed modeling of the three categories in the same distribution and thus enabled us to reliably determine the relative proportions for each category using an ordinal approach. Based on WHO and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)-defined thresholds, a moderate level of separate or dual conditions is defined as >5–10%, a high level as >10–15% and a very high level as >15% estimated prevalence11. Finally, we have defined DBM in this study as the simultaneous occurrence of >5% estimated prevalence for both wasting and overweight within the same locations in the same year.

Reversing the rise in childhood overweight is indicated in the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal 2.2 (ref. 12) and WHO’s GNTs to improve maternal, infant and young child nutrition13. WHO has also set an international target to reduce wasting to <5% by 2025 (ref. 14). Quantifying changes in childhood overweight and wasting prevalence can be used to measure progress toward these targets, while identifying locales with simultaneous overweight and wasting will better inform intervention planning. In addition, mapping changes in DBM prevalence will provide a deeper understanding of the impact of past intervention strategies, including insight into overweight in children under 5.