Balancing hunger and obesity – where do we meet?

By Diane Sally Hansen and Arune Keturakyte 

If you were born in one of the Sub-Saharan countries, there would be up to a 45% risk that you would already be malnourished when born. You would be 16 times more likely to die by your fifth birthday, as your immune system could be weakened by malnutrition. You could be malnourished because you would be lacking protein, energy, vitamins A and D, Iodine, Zinc and Iron which all play a crucial role in your development.

Food can be taken for granted. From the time when we are born, we believe that food is accessible and is there to support our physical and mental development to achieve our goals in life.  With time, we find it difficult to maintain a healthy balanced diet. It could lead to being overweight and obese. However, some individuals do not have the opportunity to access the food necessary for survival. For that reason the United Nations have identified hunger as the leading issue that needs to be addressed, and are encouraging countries to recognise the first Millennium Development Goal to reduce hunger by 50% by 2015. As the United Nations predict, the goal is going to be achieved, however, 1 in 8 are still going hungry every day around the world. Therefore, it is essential to discuss nutrition as it is the foundation to support human health and development.

Obesity vs Underweight

People are malnourished if their diet does not provide adequate calories and protein for growth and essential micronutrients to achieve optimal health (UNICEF, 2012).

We all have a relationship with food. Some individuals establish a loving and caring relationship, however, some of us develop so called love-hate pattern to our diets. The choice of food and the comfort we sometimes seek can lead to undesired outcomes. Due to changes in our dietary pattern, some individuals replace nutritious food necessary for a healthy body and mind with foods high in saturated fats and sugars. North America per capita energy supply has increased to 134% of the world average. However, per capita energy supply is still 70% lower in the Sub-Saharan region. We have the right to choose which food we want to consume as we know it will be accessible and available. Individuals living in other regions of the world do not get the choice; the decision is made for them.

The choices and availability of food varies significantly across countries and nations


Availability of food

In order for a population to function, necessary food needs to be available for individuals to obtain nutrients. If the nutrients are not available the population is weakened – fetuses, infants, children, pregnant women and the elderly can be severely affected. Societies can become malnourished if their diet fails to deliver an adequate amount of protein and calories to support everyday energy needs. For these reasons, individuals consuming too much food high in fats and sugars can be as similarly malnourished as individuals consuming food low in nutrients. Findings show that 6.6 million of children under the age of 5 died in 2012. About 45% of those were linked to malnourishment and could have been prevented if appropriate diet was available.

Development effects

Limited access to nutritious food at important life stages limit the potential abilities of the population. Individuals are more susceptible to infectious diseases when their immune systems are already weakened by malnutrition from the birth. Women who are of reproductive age can be lacking nutrients to carry a full-term birth and risk the infant’s and their own lives when in labour. Limited education about the importance of breastfeeding for the first six months of the newborn’s life and inappropriate supplementary foods weaken the immune system of already fragile infants. This affects their physical development, such as the development of the brain, and compromises its future function and intellectual abilities.

To support economic growth of low-income countries we need to look at the foundation of the population. If the population is exposed to mineral shortages due to a low-nutrition diet, Vitamin A, D and Iodine shortages cause retardation, disability and increases morbidity due to lack of support for the development of the brain.


Pregnant women, children and elderly people are at the highest risk of undernutrition as these groups are exposed to its causes and most vulnerable to its consequences. Dr. David Barker found that low birth weight and low weight during infancy increases the risk for coronary heart diseases later in life. Lower birth weight is also associated with a higher risk of hypertension, stroke and type II diabetes.  Studies have shown that a woman who is undernourished during conception and pregnancy passes important health effects on to her child. It is therefore essential for women to have an adequate and nutritious diet in order to send healthy children into the world.

The map shows the proportion of children under 5 years of age that are underweight worldwide


Risks related to malnutrition

Due to compromised immunesystems, children who already suffer from malnutrition have a higher risk of contracting infectious diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia in low-income countries. The lack of vaccinations and medication for treatment show that the death of many children under age of five due to infectious diseases could be prevented if sufficient health-system and food security were to be put in place. It still raises controversy over how supplementation of nutrients should be used in order to increase nutritional status of children.

The importance of providing food for populations worldwide is essential. Economic growth, survival of children and health expenditure depends on our diets. Even though efforts have been put into place to reduce the number of nations starving, today, we are still conscious of children dying from starvation. As a global nation, we stand together to provide nutritious food to more vulnerable countries, including support and finding solutions to overcome obstacles in child nutrition. We all need to be more aware of our own well-being and management of diets that would encourage us and our children to balance the choices of food and the improvement of our own health.

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