Food Justice

Food and Hunger

Food and Hunger

While overnutrition and undernutrition seem to be polar opposites, they are both forms of malnutrition.

February 5, 2013

In the province of Tyre, Lebanon, only half of the population has enough to eat. In hungry households, one-third of the children are overweight, and one-quarter exhibit classic symptoms of undernourishment. The province is simultaneously suffering from obesity and malnutrition, and it is not alone. From Lebanon to Brazil, researchers are finding that obesity and undernutrition exist side by side, a phenomenon known as the “double burden.”

While overnutrition and undernutrition seem to be polar opposites, they are both forms of malnutrition. The double burden of malnutrition can occur not only in one country but also in one community, one family and even in one person. The human body needs micronutrients, essential vitamins and minerals, in adequate quantities to grow and function properly. If diet is unbalanced, consisting of insufficient or excessive quantities of micronutrient-rich foods, then human beings become at risk for malnutrition.

Malnutrition manifests itself in several ways. Failure to consume adequate amounts of micronutrients can lead to undernutrition and in extreme cases starvation. If the same person consumes too many calories, he or she is overnourished and at risk for overweight and obesity. When a person consumes too many calories but does not get enough essential nutrients, he or she is simultaneously under- and overfed. This is the double burden. 

Malnutrition Is the Greatest Single Threat to the World’s Public Health

According to the World Health Organization, malnutrition is the greatest single threat to the world’s public health. We live in a world today where one in seven—1 billion— people are hungry. At the same time, more than 1 billion people are overweight, and at least 300 million are obese. Every year, undernutrition contributes, directly or indirectly, to the death of 5 million children under age five, reports UNICEF. Overnutrition causes more than 2.8 million deaths.

Today, 65 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where overweight and obesity kill more people than undernutrition. By 2015, the World Health Organization estimates that 1.5 billion people will be overweight. In the United States, one-third of adults and 17 percent of children are obese. Researchers speculate that children today may be the first generation to lead sicker lives and have shorter life expectancies than their parents.

Undernutrition and Starvation

The most severe form of undernutrition is starvation—a total or near-total lack of nutrients needed for a healthy life. Starvation occurs when the body expends more energy than it is able to take in. In search of energy, the body begins to break down nutrients and muscles in itself. If energy is not found elsewhere, starvation leads to death. Starvation is most prevalent in times of catastrophes such as floods, droughts, earthquakes and famines. It is also common during times of armed conflict, when widespread destruction forces families to abandon homes and livelihoods.

Undernutrition contributes to stunting the growth of 165 million children every year. In that same year, between 4 and 5 billion people suffer from iron deficiency due to an unbalanced diet, which impairs growth and cognitive development and leads children to perform poorly in school and adults to be less productive.

The damage done by malnutrition in the first 1,000 days of life of a child are often irreversible. The right nutrition in this window of time greatly impacts a child’s ability to grow, learn and rise out of poverty. According to the 1,000 Days campaign, the first 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday can shape a society’s long-term health, stability and prosperity. 

Overnutrition and Obesity

At the other end of the spectrum from undernutrition lies overnutrition or excessive food intake. Between 1980 and 2008, according to the World Health Organization, obesity rates doubled in every region of the world. A common misconception is that overweight and obesity is limited to developed countries. In reality, mass consumption of cheap processed food, high in calories and low in nutrients, is at an all-time high around the world. As of June 2012, a larger proportion of people in Panama, Saudi Arabia, and six Pacific Island nations are obese than in America. Readily available and affordable, such food attracts people because it is cheap and provides instant gratification. Such habits coupled with a general shift toward a sedentary lifestyle have devastating consequences.

Far-ranging negative effects of obesity include high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and increased risk of cancers. Globally, 44 percent of diabetes, 23 percent of heart disease and 7 to 41 percent of certain cancers are attributed to overweight and obesity. 

Malnutrition Is Not New

Food inequities have existed for centuries. In the past, ending hunger and malnutrition seemed simple: Communities simply needed to increase yield. Researchers now understand that the quality of food a person consumes is as important as the quantity.

Malnutrition is an especially dangerous disease because of its “hidden” nature. If people are consuming adequate calories, they may fall under the illusion that they are being adequately fed. In reality, unless a person’s diet is balanced—composed of proper amounts of vitamins and minerals—the person is at risk for malnutrition. Consuming a diet composed predominantly from a single source, such as corn or rice, does not allow the body to get enough essential nutrients that it needs to properly function and survive.

In summary, malnutrition is a serious condition with various causes that include poverty, lack of access to nutritious food, changes in lifestyle and low levels of education. Due to poverty, many households cannot afford to purchase quality, nutritious food. In the developing world, rising food prices have forced families to cut down on the quantity and the quality of their food. For families that rely of farming for food, rising costs of finite resources such as land, seeds and water make growing food increasingly difficult.

In the developed world, a lack of access to fresh, affordable produce along with an abundance of cheap fast food is contributing to the malnourishment of millions, as is the case in the United States. If we do not fight obesity and malnutrition, children today may be the first generation to lead sicker lives and have shorter life expectancies than their parents, a tragedy of the 21st century. 

Sarika Mathur works for the office of Global Justice at United Methodist Women on issues around food and hunger; women’s rights; and international peace and security.

Posted or updated: 2/4/2013 11:00:00 PM