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Rising temperatures linked to low quality diets among children

Rising temperatures are contributing to lower quality diets and malnutrition among children. An international study led by the University of Vermont is the largest-ever investigation into how climate change affects children’s diets. 

The researchers analyzed the diet quality of 107,000 children, including micronutrient intake. They found that climate change has an equal or greater impact on child malnutrition as poverty, poor education, and unsanitary conditions.

Study lead author Meredith Niles is an assistant professor of Nutrition and Food Sciences and a research fellow in the University’s Gund Institute for Environment.

“Certainly, future climate changes have been predicted to affect malnutrition, but it surprised us that higher temperatures are already showing an impact,” said Professor Niles.

The experts examined diet diversity among more than 100,000 children aged five and under in 19 countries. Five of the six regions that were represented across Asia, Africa, and South America showed significant reductions in diet quality that were related to higher temperatures. 

Micronutrients like iron, folic acid, zinc, and vitamins A and D are critical for child development. A lack of these nutrients can cause malnutrition, which affects one out of every three children under the age of five.

The study was focused on diet diversity, which is measured by counting the number of food groups eaten over a given time period. The experts found that children in the study had eaten food from an average of 3.2 out of 10 food groups in the previous 24 hours. By contrast, diet diversity in other countries such as China have been measured at more than double this average.

“Diet diversity was already low for this group,” said study co-author Brendan Fisher. “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 researchers also found that higher precipitation was associated with higher child diet diversity. In some cases, the effect of higher precipitation had a greater impact on child diet diversity than education and improved sanitation.

“Higher rainfall in the future may provide important diet quality benefits in multiple ways, but it also depends on how that rain comes,” said study co-author Molly Brown of the University of Maryland. “If it’s more erratic and intense, as is predicted with climate change, this may not hold true.”

“A warming climate has the potential undermine all the good that international development programs provide,” said study co-author Taylor Ricketts. 

“In fact, that is something we find again and again in this global research: continued environmental degradation has the potential to undermine the impressive global health gains of the last 50 years.”

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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