From Hunger to Obesity: Addressing Malnutrition

Stefan Jungcurt , 24.01.2017

The number of people suffering from hunger around the world is steadily declining. At the same time, there has been a rapid increase in the prevalence of diseases related to other forms of malnutrition. Nimirum fellow Stefan Jungcurt shows why a coordinated approach is neccessary to address social and economic implications.

The past decades have seen a dramatic decline in the number of people suffering from hunger around the world. From 1999-1992 to 2014-2016, the proportion of undernourished people in developing regions has almost been cut in half. At the same time, there has been a rapid increase in the prevalence of diseases related to other forms of malnutrition such as micronutrient deficiency or overweight and obesity due to overconsumption. This trend is leading to nothing less than an “epidemic” of nutrition-related non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular problems. According to data of the World Health Organization and the International Diabetes Foundation, one in three adults worldwide is overweight and one in eleven adults suffers from diabetes. In Germany, almost two thirds of adults are overweight, more than one in five is considered obese and one in nine suffers from diabetes. At the same time, even in a highly-developed country such as Germany, 1.5 million people suffer from undernutrition. Malnutrition exists in many forms and both of its extremes, hunger and obesity, are prevalent in all countries.

A New International Approach

The members of the United Nations have recognized the multiple challenges of malnutrition as part of the 2030 Agenda. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 2 calls on countries to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030. Like the entire 2030 Agenda, this goal challenges all countries to act against hunger and malnutrition within their own borders and collaborate internationally to tackle their root causes everywhere. SDG 2 builds on the outcomes of 2014 International Conference on Nutrition which recognized that all forms of malnutrition must be addressed through coherent and holistic action that guarantees access to adequate food and healthy diets for all throughout the entire course of life. The Conference adopted the Rome Declaration on Nutrition and a framework for action. The framework includes many recommendations that together aim to establish integrated, sustainable and healthy food systems, including, for example:

  • integrate nutrition objectives into food and agriculture policy and enhance nutrition-sensitive agriculture;

  • promote diversification of crops, including underutilized local crops;

  • encourage gradual reduction of saturated fat, sugars and salt/sodium and trans-fat from foods and beverages;

  • implement nutrition education and information interventions and build the skills and capacities of educators in schools, social work, agricultural extension and health professors; and

  • enable national health systems to address malnutrition in all its forms.

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In 2015, during World Expo in Milan, the mayors of 133 cities around the world adopted the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact which translates many of these recommendations into actions at the city level. The Pact recognizes that most malnourished people live in cities and that policies to address malnutrition must also address environmental issues, including mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. For instance, the Pact commits majors to:

  • promote “sustainable diets” that are healthy, safe, culturally appropriate, environmentally friendly and rights-based;

  • encourage joint action by health and food sectors;

  • promote and strengthen urban and peri-urban food production and processing and seek coherence between the city and nearby rural food production; and

  • bring together all stakeholders of the food chain to find ways to reduce food loss

To strengthen the momentum for implementation of the Rome Declaration, the Milan Food Policy Pact and similar initiatives, the UN proclaimed the Decade of Action on Nutrition 2016-2025 . This initiative seeks to create a “society-wide movement, leading to national policy change and ultimately to the end of all forms of malnutrition.” To achieve this objective the initiative promotes mechanisms such as strengthening science and data about nutrition for evidence-based advocacy, establishing platforms, such as conferences, summits and forums to promote dialogue and exchange of information, and accountability mechanisms to monitor progress and check whether policies and interventions are effective.

What should we do?

Ending all forms of malnutrition arguably is a daunting challenge that must engage all members of society. Some of the recommendations discussed above are already being implemented by many countries; however, only a have yet come up with an approach that takes all recommendations into account and puts people at the center of the food system. What is needed are approaches that can generate the necessary engagement to generate social momentum. For instance, we need an integrated platform or institution that brings together all stakeholders of the food system including farmers, producer organizations, the food industry, retailers and consumers, to discuss in an open dialogue how the food system can be reorganized to provide sustainable, healthy diets for all. We also should think about a new approach to nutrition education that goes beyond transmitting information to provide consumers with the knowledge and the skills to (re-) enable them to be active participants in the food system. This should include exposure to all stages of food production to provide an understanding of its environmental and socioeconomic impacts. Most importantly it should allow all citizens to re-discover that carefully selecting and preparing your own food is a rewarding and socially valuable activity. After all: We are what we eat! So we should learn to embrace our food as an integral part of ourselves. 

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