Malnutrition affects one in three people, but starvation isn't the only culprit

Women sit on a bench in New York's Times Square May 31, 2012. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY)

Nearly every country is facing a major public health challenge from malnutrition. Image: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Emma Luxton
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Future of Global Health and Healthcare

Malnutrition has become “the new normal”, affecting one in three people – many of whom are overweight, according to a World Health Organization report that warns of the scale of the health and economic consequences of both undernutrition and obesity.

While malnutrition is traditionally associated with starvation, the report says its nature is changing, as an increasing number of people who are overweight or obese now suffer from malnutrition.

Almost half (44%) of the countries surveyed for the 2016 Global Nutrition Report have very serious levels of undernutrition and obesity in adults, and nearly every country is facing a major public health challenge as a result of malnutrition.

Childhood obesity

Children under the age of five are suffering from all forms of malnutrition. Stunted growth is the biggest form of malnutrition, with 159 million young children too short for their age.

It is well known that millions of children suffer from wasting, or acute malnutrition, but now almost as many are overweight.

Asia is seeing the biggest increase in the number of overweight children. However, the report notes that progress is possible. For example, the number of children who are stunted is declining in all regions except Africa and Oceania. Ghana has seen stunting rates almost halve in just over a decade.

Malnutrition is linked to almost half of all deaths of children under five, according to the World Health Organization.

Image: Global Nutrition Report 2016

The consequences

The numbers of overweight or obese people are rising in every region of the world, and in nearly every country.

A problem in all countries, malnutrition can have devastating consequences, and is, along with poor diet, the number one driver of the global burden of disease, such as diarrhoea, lower respiratory infections, neonatal complications and malaria.

The economic effects are great too: losses as a result of malnutrition average 11% of GDP in Asia and Africa.

In the United States, when one family member is obese, there is an additional yearly healthcare cost of 8% of annual household income.

The report calculates that for every $1 investment in improved nutrition, $16 is added to the economy. The World Bank found that good nutrition leads to improved productivity, economic development and poverty reduction by improving people’s ability to work as well as boosting the overall health, development and education of a nation.

Ending all forms of malnutrition by 2030 is one of the targets set out in the the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

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