Perspective: What Does Stunting Really Mean? A Critical Review of the Evidence uri icon

abstract

  • The past decade has seen an unprecedented increase in attention to undernutrition, and drastically reducing child stunting has become a global development objective. The strong focus on linear growth retardation and stunting has enabled successful advocacy for nutrition, but with this focus has come some confusion and misunderstanding about the meaning of linear growth retardation and stunting among researchers, donors, and agencies active in nutrition. Motivated by the belief that a sharp focus will further accelerate progress in reducing undernutrition, we critically reviewed the evidence. The global attention to stunting is based on the premise that any intervention aimed at improving linear growth will subsequently lead to improvements in the correlates of linear growth retardation and stunting. Current evidence and understanding of mechanisms does not support this causal thinking, with 2 exceptions: linear growth retardation is a cause of difficult births and poor birth outcomes. Linear growth retardation is associated with (but does not cause) delayed child development, reduced earnings in adulthood, and chronic diseases. We thus propose distinguishing 2 distinctly different meanings of linear growth retardation and stunting. First, the association between linear growth retardation (or stunting) and other outcomes makes it a useful marker. Second, the causal links with difficult births and poor birth outcomes make linear growth retardation and stunting outcomes of intrinsic value. In many cases a focus on linear growth retardation and stunting is not necessary to improve the well-being of children; in many other cases, it is not sufficient to reach that goal; and for some outcomes, promoting linear growth is not the most cost-efficient strategy. We appeal to donors, program planners, and researchers to be specific in selecting nutrition outcomes and to target those outcomes directly.

publication date

  • 2019
  • 2019