The word ‘malnutrition’ conjures up images of painfully thin children with protruding ribs and swollen bellies.


And many children – especially in war-torn countries such as Yemen – are living on the brink of famine, despite Zero Hunger being one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN says 10 million Yemenis are ‘one step away from famine’.
Image: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

But the World Health Organization’s definition of malnutrition is significantly broader than having an insufficient food supply. That's because overeating - or consuming the wrong types of food - is equally damaging to human health.

This was highlighted recently when a British teenager went blind after subsisting on a diet of chips, crisps, white bread and processed meat.

Although he was not underweight, a critical lack of vitamins and nutrients severely damaged his eyesight.

Every country is fighting malnutrition

The impact of eating too much, too little, or the wrong types of food was summed up in the latest Global Nutrition Report, which found that poor diets account for nearly one-in-five deaths.

It also stressed that almost every country is battling some form of malnutrition, whether it’s anemic children, women who are overweight but undernourished or rising obesity among teenagers.

Hunger still affects more than 800 million people around the world.
Image: Statista

The WHO has found that being overweight or obese is now linked to more deaths worldwide than being underweight, a result of associated heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers.

The WHO now has three main categories of malnutrition:

  • Undernutrition
  • Micronutrient-related malnutrition
  • Overweight and obesity
Obesity is a growing problem in every region of the world.
Image: Our World in Data

Shaping the global agenda

World hunger has risen for the third year in a row. But world obesity has tripled since 1975.

And there are more people who are obese than underweight in every region of the world, with the exception of parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

The World Economic Forum has created a Global Future Council on Food Systems Innovation to address some of the challenges relating to food, including introducing better diets.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.