Why we need to talk about global hunger and obesity

by Paul Newnham | @paulnewnham | SDG2 Advocacy Hub
Monday, 22 January 2018 14:32 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For every undernourished person there are now two obese or overweight people in the world

“I’m hungry…” is a phrase I hear frequently when raising four active kids.  Often between lunch and dinner they want a whole other meal. Then, as they stand with the fridge or cupboard wide open, staring at sufficient choices of food, I hear, “There’s nothing to eat!”

This is not real, true hunger. It’s a learned behaviour after living a privileged life.  They are hungry in their understanding of ‘I want food’, but it’s completely different from real ‘hunger’ as felt by over 800 million people who go to bed truly hungry each night.  True hunger equates to malnutrition whereby a person does not consume enough nutrients to lead a healthy life.

For the first time in a decade, we saw a global rise in the number of hungry people in 2017. At the same time, there was a continued rise in obesity.  On the surface, this seems a highly unusual global phenomenon and begs the question: are the two related?

Statistically, there are approximately two obese people for every one hungry person. Malnutrition in all of its forms- undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overweight/obesity- is increasing.  The recently released Global Nutrition Report 2017 showed that 88% of countries face a serious burden of either two or three forms of malnutrition namely undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency or overweight/ obesity.   There is also evidence which suggests that people who experience undernutrition as children are more likely to be overweight as adults. This double and even triple burden is making the work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) even more challenging.  

This begs the questions: Why do we see continued hunger and a concurrent rise in people eating too much, and the wrong types of foods?  

Our planet produces more than enough food to feed everyone and has for a number of years. However, food is unequally distributed and far too much is wasted.  Some have access to much, while others not enough.  The increased production of cheaper, produced food has made food more accessible to those that would otherwise be without as well as resulted in people consuming the wrong type of food. These foods, while not bad in and of themselves as occasional foods, are often higher in salt, sugar and saturated fats, while their nutrition content is questionable.

While in some places this phenomenon, coupled with globalisation, has resulted in a reduction in the number of hungry or malnourished people, it has also contributed to a significant jump in the number of overweight and obese children. 

As a parent raising their kids in the UK, this is a major concern for me.  It is so convenient and affordable to fill my kids up with processed foods that they love to inhale, rather than take the extra moments to prepare local produce.  Having seen first-hand the global effects of a poor diet, we are actively trying to raise children that understand a balanced diet.  Eat seasonal, local food that looks the same as when it was grown or harvested.  Prepare food from scratch.  Know and understand the ingredients. Most importantly, only consume what you need, not necessarily what you might want.  This task is becoming harder and harder.  

This paradox is not easily addressed but the future health of our planet and its population is at stake.   Changes need to be carried out from household to production level and involve all of the supply chains in between.   The co-existence of double and triple burdens of malnutrition calls for integrated action that tackles malnutrition in all its forms: from the causes of obesity to the causes of wasting and stunting.  It requires all countries to evaluate and restructure their food systems in their entirety.  Laws around food-marketing, educating consumers and ethical supply chains are just a few areas that must be part of the food discussion in order to build a sustainable, equitable food future for everyone.

This is just one of many paradoxes within our food system. Now more than ever we need to engage people more intentionally to effect change. The Food Sustainability Media Award is looking to showcase excellence in telling this story. 

Read the full blog here.