Food is essential for our health and well-being. It's nourishment for our bodies that can support healthy growth and development in kids and help sustain good health in adults. When people don't receive the right nutrients in the right amounts, or are malnourished, it can have a devasting impact and lead to serious health conditions.
Malnutrition impacts billions of people — both children and adults. It isn't just a problem of extreme poverty — it affects all communities around the world and takes shape in many forms:
While the prevalence of malnutrition can be seen throughout the world, the impact and needs vary from region to region. Africa is still experiencing staggering rates of undernutrition as the number of undernourished people is growing faster there than in any other region of the world. Stunting and wasting among children have declined in southeast Asia and Latin America, but the regions are experiencing worsening obesity rates due to changing food consumption habits. The prevalence of obesity has tripled in many European countries in the past four decades; and in the United States, 1 in 5 children and more than 1 in 3 adults struggle with obesity.
Due to rising incomes and urbanization, many countries are facing the double burden of malnutrition with increasing rates of obesity as well as undernutrition. Beyond malnutrition's impact on health, it's estimated that malnutrition costs the global economy up to $3.5 trillion a year, impacting the social and economic development of countries around the world.
Children are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of malnutrition as it impacts their ability to grow — cognitively and physically — to their full potential. Poor nutrition can lead to deficits in energy, protein or micronutrients; and it can negatively affect physical growth, intellectual development and academic attainment. Obesity can lead to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, with people being diagnosed even at young ages.
Factors Contributing to Malnutrition
Food insecurity and lack of access to healthy food are contributing factors to malnutrition. Additionally, shifting cultural trends which focus on convenience and on-the-go eating have increased the consumption of unhealthy foods that contain few nutrients and many calories. This can increase obesity and cause micronutrient deficiencies as people consume less healthy food due to availability, cost and convenience.
Malnutrition has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated health disparities in many countries. As the pandemic disrupted global food supply chains and caused economic shockwaves, more people are facing food security challenges. It's estimated that an additional 83-132 million people globally will face undernourishment as a result of the pandemic. Lack of access to nutritious foods during the pandemic is also driven by disruptions to the infrastructure where many people receive food support such as schools, food banks or clinics. Likewise, the ability to identify and treat undernourishment, particularly in children, also decreased during the pandemic as children were not regularly attending school in person or being seen by healthcare professionals.
Solving this global problem requires collaboration across key stakeholders such as government, non-profits, private and public organizations, and community groups to reach the people who are most affected. Solutions come in many forms — including research, education, nutrition interventions and policy changes — and must be relevant to the local and regional needs.