Every year, micronutrient deficiencies are responsible for about 1,2 million of the 3,1 million child deaths that occur as a result of undernutrition. AND, the really alarming thing – is that

malnutrition is preventable

The first 5 years of a child’s life is the ‘sponge’ stage – where they soak up everything. Their brains are malleable and highly impressionable at this time. In addition, the cornerstone of a healthy body is a healthy mind. Neither a body nor its computer, the brain, can work effectively if it’s not in a correct working state as a result of being fed the right nutrients. Unfortunately chronic malnutrition is an issue that is highly prevalent and grossly ignored in South Africa.

In a nutshell

Children who consume diets that do not have sufficient nutrients (vitamins and minerals) are at risk of undernutrition which can manifest itself in the form of stunting, wasting, or underweight.

  • Stunting occurs when a child’s height-for-age is low compared to healthy children in the same reference population. Stunting is a chronic form of malnutrition.
  • Wasting is an acute form of malnutrition and is defined as low weight-for height.
  • Underweight – defined as low weight-for-age. A child who is underweight may be stunted,
    wasted or both.

Undernutrition is part of malnutrition. Malnutrition refers to an unbalanced diet – including excessive eating – whereas the term undernutrition refers more specifically to a deficiency of nutrients.

Malnutrition is not new – but it’s not getting any better!

It is absolutely astounding that in a country like South Africa stunting rates are 27% and have been at this level since 1999. Whilst other countries, that are less endowed than South Africa, have shown a significant decrease in stunting rates – such as Kenya where the stunting rate has halved over the corresponding period and is now lower than South Africa’s. Several other low- and middle-income countries like Rwanda, which although still concerningly high, successfully decreased its stunting level from 44% in 2010 to 38% in 2015.

Growth Stunting

What is stunting?

Stunting is a sign of chronic malnutrition. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) ‘Stunting is the impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition, repeated infection, and inadequate psychosocial stimulation. Children are defined as stunted if their height-for-age is more than two standard deviations below the WHO Child Growth Standards’.

What effect does malnutrition have on a child?

Malnutrition is devastating. To put it plainly, malnutrition systematically destroys a child – it damages their chance of survival, their cognitive development, educational attainment, their immune system, their body as well as their muscle growth, and makes them more vulnerable to disease and death. Malnutrition also severely impacts their prospects at a proper future – at making a livelihood – at being a productive and valuable member of society. The crux of the matter is that early childhood malnutrition CAN BE PREVENTED. 

Studies also showed that adults who are stunted as children earn 20% less than comparable adults who were not stunted and are 30% more likely to live in poverty and less likely to work in skilled labour. Thus, the economic costs of undernutrition, in terms of lost national productivity and economic growth, are significant – ranging up to 11% of the GDP in Africa each year.

Global Hunger index 2015

What is the triple burden of malnutrition in childhood?

The concept of the ‘double burden’ of malnutrition has been around for some time and refers to the co-existence of undernutrition and overnutrition. It soon became apparent that micronutrient deficiencies represented an additional threat

– hence the triple burden of malnutrition.


1. Undernutrition

Stunting 27%

macronutrient deficiencies

2. Micronutrient Deficiencies

Vitamin A deficiency 44%

Iron deficiency & iron anemia deficiency 10%

Zinc deficiency


3. Overnutrition

Obesity Vitamin A deficiency 44%

Overweight 13%

Vitamin deficiencies

Vitamin A deficiency causes illness, can cause visual impairment and increases the risk for mortality. Zinc plays an important role in brain functioning, and inadequate intake can cause poor cognitive development. Iron deficiency affects motor and cognitive development in children younger than 4 years.


Why are the 1st five years of a child’s life so critical ?

At birth, the average baby’s brain is about a quarter of the size of the average adult brain. Incredibly, it doubles in size in the first year and keeps growing to about 80% of adult size by age 3 and then up to 90% – nearly fully-grown – by age 5. These first five years are critical for not only brain maturation, but also other physical and emotional development.

If children do not receive the right nutrition (vitamins and minerals) not only are they at risk of survival, but they can have problems that will last all the way into adulthood. Every child deserves a chance – help us to help them and make a REAL DIFFERENCE.

Can malnutrition really be prevented?


It is an absolute travesty that in today’s day and age, a country like South Africa has maintained the same, disturbingly high stunting rates (27%) since 1999. There are enough experts and passionate people across academia, society, and government, who know what to do. But change often takes time, and to be frank, time for many, many children is running out. Headstart Kids is already making a powerful and positive impact on 40 000 preschool children daily, and we want, or rather HAVE to ramp this up to achieve our 2025 goal of

1 MILLION children in South Africa.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek”

Barack Obama