Malnutrition: It’s about more than hunger
Dr Francesco Branca
WHO Director, Department of Nutrition for Health and Development
If you look at the top line figures on global malnutrition things appear to be moving in the right direction: overall UN figures show that the proportion of undernourished people worldwide has reduced from 15 per cent in 2000-2002 to 11 per cent in 2014-2016.
Delve a little deeper and the situation becomes a lot of more complicated. Today, nearly one in three persons globally suffers from at least one form of malnutrition: wasting, stunting, vitamin and mineral deficiency, overweight or obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases. Current progress is insufficient to reach the World Health Assembly targets set for 2025 and the Sustainable Development Goals set for 2030.
Malnutrition is obesity as much as wasting
The Sustainable Development Goals indicate that we need to address all forms of malnutrition. Whilst we have seen a decrease in stunting we have seen an increase in all other forms of malnutrition, including childhood obesity and mineral and vitamin deficiencies leading to anemia.
"Globally, nearly 1/3 of people suffer from as a result of malnutrition: wasting, stunting, vitamin and mineral deficiency, overweight or obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases."
Dr Francesco Branca, WHO Director, Department of Nutrition for Health and Development
There are now nearly 41 million overweight children globally, an increase of 11 million since 2000. Most rapid growth has been seen in middle-income countries, many of which face the combined challenge of tackling of both undernutrition and obesity along with subsequent diet-related non-communicable diseases.
South Asia is a case in point; more than half of the 52 million children who experience wasting as a result of hunger live in southern Asia. The situation is so bad that it constitutes a public health crisis. At the same time, the region is also dealing with a dramatic increase in obesity, with the number of overweight children under five having increased from 5 million in 2000 to 7.9 million in 2016.
Economic impact is country-wide
The developmental, economic, social and medical impacts of the global burden of malnutrition are serious and lasting. A healthy diet is a top risk factor for the burden of disease. Poor nutrition not only affects individual capacity; it impacts the potential of whole countries.
Tackling this ever-evolving monster is a huge challenge, recognised by the UN General Assembly who declared a Decade of Action on Nutrition to run from 2016 to 2025. It’s the first time that nutrition has featured so prominently on the global political agenda.
Nutrition security vs food security
Whilst the issues are complex, the solutions are largely the same. We need to shift our thinking from the concept of food security to the concept of nutrition security. It’s not just the quantity of food we are providing, but also the quality and we need to consider from an early age taking into account maternal nutrition, breastfeeding, and childhood diets.
Many countries are taking action. We’ve seen governments taking responsibility for food value chains, implementing incentives to leverage action and policies that shape the price of food through taxation. We still have a lot to do, but I am optimistic.