The Issue: Malnutrition
Malnutrition is one of the world’s most serious but least addressed problems. The human and economic costs of malnutrition are enormous and fall hardest on women, children and the poor.
Malnutrition claims the lives of 3 million young children each year, yet it is almost entirely preventable. Close to 200 million children suffer from chronic nutritional deprivation that leaves them permanently stunted—unable to fulfill their genetic potential to grow and thrive—and keeps families, communities and countries locked in a cycle of hunger and poverty.
Credit: Save the Children
The cognitive and physical damage caused by malnutrition during the 1,000-day-window from pregnancy to the age of two is severe and often irreversible, with profound consequences for a child’s future and the futures of communities and societies.
What is malnutrition?
Malnutrition is a serious condition in which the body does not get the right balance of nutrients and calories needed to sustain good health and development. It arises mainly as a result of inadequate or unbalanced diets, but is also caused by poor nutrient absorption or a loss of nutrients due to illness.
There are two sides to malnutrition—undernutrition and obesity/overweight. Undernutrition is a condition in which there is inadequate nutrient or caloric intake or there is too much nutrient loss due to illness. Undernutrition manifests in stunting, wasting and essential vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Obesity and overweight manifests as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation—as measured by body mass index or BMI—and results primarily from a high-fat, calorie-dense (and often nutrient-poor) diet. Obesity and overweight are major risk factors for chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
More people are suffering from undernutrition and obesity/overweight as poor nutrition pervades both wealthy and developing countries. Undernutrition and obesity often exist side-by-side within households and communities. This is the “double-burden of malnutrition.” Low-income countries and emerging economies, such as India and Mexico, face this “double burden” as they deal with undernutrition alongside an upsurge in obesity and overweight.
There is growing evidence that malnutrition during the crucial period of human development—before and during a woman’s pregnancy and during a child’s first two years of life—“programs” a person’s future ability to regulate weight and affects brain development.
What causes malnutrition?
- Food: Poor diets caused by a lack of access to healthy quantities of diverse, nutritious food.
- Care: Poor care-giving and feeding practices, primarily due to a lack of knowledge about and support for healthy diets, breastfeeding, and good hygiene.
- Health: Infectious diseases, lack of health services, clean water and sanitation.
- Status of Women: Malnutrition often prevails when women are marginalized or their ownership and control of economic resources is limited. Malnutrition can be transmitted from one generation to the next—malnourished women given birth to malnourished daughters who often grow up to become malnourished women, often unwittingly perpetuating the cycle when they become mothers themselves.
- Poverty: Poverty is at the root of malnutrition. Poor families have limited access to healthy and varied diets, health care, clean water or basic sanitation; and are especially vulnerable in times of crisis or disaster.
What’s at stake?
The impact of malnutrition during the critical 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and a child’s 2nd birthday can last a lifetime.
Malnutrition early in life can cause irreversible damage to a child’s brain development, immune system and physical growth. This results in a diminished capacity to learn, poorer performance in school, greater susceptibility to infection and disease and a lifetime of lost earning potential.
The damage done by malnutrition translates into a huge economic burden for countries, costing billions of dollars in lost productivity and avoidable health care costs.