By Louise Iverson, Research Associate, Global Agriculture & Food, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Malnutrition affects one in two people on the planet.* This figure may seem astounding, since we often think of malnutrition only in limited terms of famine and food shortages. But malnutrition encompasses not just undernourishment but also obesity, which can lead to diet-related diseases like heart disease, type II diabetes, and some forms of cancers. These two opposing ends of the spectrum together affect billions of people and nearly every country in the world, which bear severe human and economic costs.
Undernourishment: 805 million people are chronically undernourished worldwide. Undernourishment rates are highest among rural farmers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, who farm small plots of land and barely produce enough to feed their families or make a living. This poor nutrition inhibits health and well-being, and is particularly perilous in early childhood: Undernourishment in a child’s first two years leads to stunted physical and mental growth, and undernutrition is implicated in the deaths of 3.1 million children under five each year, or 45 percent of under-five mortality. The effects of poor nutrition are often irreversible and last a lifetime: adults who were undernourished as children earn 20 percent less than adults who were not. Those adults also are more likely to contract chronic diseases, and women who were undernourished as children face greater rates of maternal mortality and low birth weight.
Obesity: Conversely, 1.4 billion worldwide are overweight or obese. Obesity is one of the most significant risk factors for diet-related chronic diseases like heart disease, type II diabetes, and some forms of cancers. In 2008, chronic diseases accounted for 63 percent of all global deaths, and are the leading cause of death worldwide. Health care costs and lost labor productivity as a result of obesity cost nations billions per year, inhibiting economic growth.
And while undernourishment rates are slowly declining, global obesity is projected to skyrocket, especially in low- and middle-income countries. As a result, many nations must now face the dual burden of malnutrition as they confront both facets of malnutrition simultaneously.
Eating healthy foods can help prevent and treat malnutrition in all its forms. But too often healthy foods are not available, affordable, safe, or appealing. In the coming weeks, The Chicago Council will explore how all parts of the food system—farmers and fishers, processors, food manufacturers, retailers, legislators, and consumers—can better support health while driving economic growth and protecting the environment.
That is all easier said than done. So how can we leverage our global food system to improve people’s health? Join us in tackling this question over the next ten weeks. Tweet your ideas at @GlobalAgDev using #GlobalAg or post them on our Facebook page.
- Black, Robert E., et al. "Maternal and child undernutrition and overweight in low-income and middle-income countries." The Lancet 382, no. 9890. (2013): 427-51.
- Daniels, Mitchell E., Jr., and Thomas E. Donilon, chairs. The Emerging Global Health Crisis: Noncommunicable Diseases in Low- and Middle-Income Countries. Independent Task Force Report No. 72. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2014.
- International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Global Nutrition Report 2014: Actions and Accountability to Accelerate the World’s Progress on Nutrition. Washington, DC: IFPRI, 2014.
- World Health Organization (WHO). Global status report on noncommunicable diseases 2010. Geneva: WHO, 2011.
*From the Global Nutrition Report 2014, based on the following calculations: Globally, 3.7 billion people, or approximately half the population, are affected by either under-five stunting (165 million), micronutrient deficiencies (2 billion), or adult overweight/obesity (adults 20+ years). This calculation assumes no overlaps, and is therefore an overestimate. However, this figure omits under-five wasting (51 million); under-five overweight and obesity (42 million); overweight/obese children and adolescents between 6-19 years, thin children over 5 years and thin adolescent/adults. It is therefore estimated that these exlusions offset overlaps between micronutrient deficiency and overweight/obesity. The Chicago Council thanks Kamilla Gehrt Eriksen, Data Analyst for the Global Nutrition Report, for providing detail and insight into this figure.