Understanding the different dimensions of malnutrition (undernutrition) to maximize human capital development (Part 2: the facts)

This is it!

We are moving to the next blog and we will start by defining briefly the different dimensions of malnutrition (undernutrition) using an interactive approach (maps, figures and facts). It will be a long journey, but I think an interesting learning path not only for you, the people who are reading this blog but also for me and CKi. Let’s start …



What is malnutrition?

I won’t give you an academic definition of what is malnutrition. A simple way to understand the concept is the fact that:

Hunger = Undernutrition = Malnutrition


Malnutrition = undernutrition or overnutrition

Malnutrition = not enough diversified foods in quantity and/or quality


To be healthy (not malnourished): you need to eat well….Your body needs to digest the food and absorb the nutrients released during the digestion process appropriately… Finally, the cells in your body need to use effectively the absorbed nutrients to build tissue, provide energy and/or regulate various organ and cell functions


Environmental issues like disease, stress… can affect the overall mechanism and exacerbate the degree of malnutrition


Complicate…. No!


Tackling the problem of malnutrition demands an integrated approach


 Undernitrition – where are we in 2013?

Undernutrition affects millions of people each year all over the world, although the main concentration of cases is found in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia (see figure below).

figure 1

870 million people are undernourished in the world today. That means one in eight people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life.

Hunger and malnutrition are in fact the number one risk to the health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. It is recognized as the underlying cause of nearly a third of deaths from all diseases in children in pre-school years. In fact, maternal and child undernutrition account for 11 % of the global burden of disease.

The different types of undernutrition:

figure 2

(UNICEF information)

There are two main types of undernutrition as shown in the figure above: growth failure and micronutrient deficiency(see figure below). Each form of undernutrition depends on what nutrients are missing in the diet, for how long and at what age. They include:

1)      Growth failure:

  • Severe and moderate forms of acute malnutrition (leading to wasting) are indicated by a low weight-for-height or presence of bilateral oedemas. This occurs as a result of recent rapid weight loss, or a failure to gain weight within a reasonably short period of time. Wasting occurs more frequently with infants and young children, often during the stages where complementary foods are being introduced to their diets (6 to 24 months), and when children are typically more susceptible to infectious diseases. Acute malnutrition can result from food shortages, a recent bout of illness, inappropriate child care or feeding practices or a combination of these factors.

According to Action Against Hunger, It is estimated that around 41 million children globally have moderate acute malnutrition (MAM). Most children with MAM live in southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, it is suggested that there are potentially 20 million children suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM) every year, and an estimated 0.5 million to 2 million children with SAM die each year, depending on the type of reporting mechanism.

Sixty percent of all the wasted children (both moderate and severe) in the world live in ten countries (see table below); India being the more affected with ~25 million children suffering of moderate and/or severe acute malnutrition.

figure 3

(UNICEF information)

  • Stunting or chronic undernutrition, resulting in growth retardation, is indicated by a low height for-age. The causes and etiology of stunting include nutrition, infection and mother-infant interaction. Stunting is a cumulative process that can begin in utero and continue until the age of 3 years after birth, compromising the growth of a child. The consequences of becoming and remaining stunted are increased risk of morbidity, mortality, delays in motor and mental development, and decreased work capacity.

Stunting is estimated by the UNICEF to affect 800 million people worldwide. 195 million children under 5 years of ages are stunted. The prevalence of stunting is highest in Africa (40%), and the largest number of stunted children is in Asia (112 million), mostly in South-central Asia (India). Ninety per cent of the overall global burden of child stunting is attributable to 36 countries (see figure below).


(HUMANOSPHERE information)

  • Underweight is a composite measure of both acute and chronic malnutrition, indicated by a low weight-for-age.

figure 6

In 2011, an estimated 17%, or 99 million children under five years of age in developing countries were underweight. As shown in the figure above, underweight is most common in South-central Asia (30%), followed by Western, Eastern, and Middle Africa (22%, 19% and 17%, respectively) and South-Eastern Asia (17%). The situation is better in Eastern and Western Asia, Northern Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, where less than 10% of children were underweight.

What is well known is the fact that:

1)  Children in the poorest households are twice as likely to be underweight as those in the least poor households.

2) Children living in rural areas are more likely to be underweight than those living in urban areas.

The proportion of children under five years old in developing countries who were underweight has declined by 11 percentage points between 1990 and 2011, from 28% to 17% (see figure below). During this period of time, good progress has been made in Western Asia (reduction from 14% to 5%), Eastern Asia (reduction from 15% to 3%), Caribbean (reduction from 9% to 4%), Central America (reduction from 11% to 4%) and South America (reduction from 6% to 3%). In South-eastern Asia, underweight has declined but remains high at 17%. In contrast, underweight continues to be very high in South-central Asia (30%). This combined with large population, means that most underweight children live in South-central Asia (56 million in 2011). Actually, India has the second higher % of children aged <5 years that are underweighed (43.5%). Finally, as shown in the figure below, progress is still insufficient in Africa. One interesting point is the fact that we don’t know yet if rising food prices and the current economic crisis have affected the latest trends in some populations, it is too early to draw firm conclusions.

figure 7 

2)      The micronutrient deficiency:

Micronutrient deficiencies occur when the body does not have sufficient amounts of vitamins or minerals due to insufficient dietary intake and/or insufficient absorption and/or suboptimal utilization of the vitamins or minerals by the body. One out of 3 people (2 billion people) worldwide are affected by vitamin and mineral deficiencies, according to the WHO.

Three, perhaps the most important in terms of health consequences for poor people in developing countries, are:

  • An estimated 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient. An estimated 250,000 to 500 000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. Moreover, in vitamin A deficient areas, it is likely that a substantial proportion of pregnant women is vitamin A deficient.
  • Iron deficiency is a principal cause of anemia. Two billion people—over 30% of the world’s population—are anemic. For children, health consequences include premature birth, low birth weight, infections, and elevated risk of death. For pregnant women, anemia contributes to 20% of all maternal deaths.

In many countries, more than half of all women of reproductive age are anemic (see figure below).


  • Iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) put at risk children´s mental health– often their very lives. Serious iodine deficiency during pregnancy may result in stillbirths, abortions and congenital abnormalities such as cretinism, a grave, irreversible form of mental retardation that affects people living in iodine-deficient areas of Africa and Asia. IDD affects over 740 million people, 13% of the world’s population. Fifty million people have some degree of mental impairment caused by IDD.

The figure below shows the areas at high risk of micronutrient deficiency for iron, vitamin A and iodine in the developing world. What is interesting to note is the fact that micronutrient deficiency affects a larger range of low and middle-income countries, more than the problem of underweight and/or stunting (see figure above). Globally, the problem is enormous and needs a special attention.


The two new dimensions of undernutrition:

Improving the health of mothers, newborns and children and reducing the number of preventable deaths are top priorities for many stakeholders working in both the developed and developing worlds. Improving child and maternal health is also an important strategy in the long term because it relates to the fetal origin of adult disease like hypertension, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In this new context where we are moving from saving life to improving human development and preventing adult disease, two important dimensions of undernutrition need to be discussed independently. They are:

  • Maternal undernutrition, resulting in poor nutritional status of the mother during preconception, pregnancy and post-natal stages, is indicated by a low Body Mass Index (BMI) and micronutrient deficiencies.

In nowadays, the prevalence of low body mass index (BMI <18.5 kg m-2) among women 15–49 years of age may be as high as 26.5% in Sub-Saharan Africa, 35% in South/Southeast Asia, 15.5% in Caribbean and 4% in Latin America. As shown in the figure below, India is again among the countries with the higher level of underweight women (> 20%). It is important to keep in mind that maternal short stature and low body mass index independently have adverse effects on pregnancy outcomes.

figure 4


It was really difficult to find a visual representation of the worldwide prevalence of underweight among women aged 20-49 years old. The map above shows both the prevalence of underweight and overweight in 57 low to middle income countries. What is quite interesting is the fact thatthe prevalence of overweight in young women residing in both urban and rural areas is higher than those in underweight women, especially in countries at higher levels of socioeconomic development. The best examples are Brazil and South Africa (the worse situation), the exception is India.

  • Low birth weight (LBW) of newborn infants is defined as weighing less than 2,500 g at birth irrespective of gestational age (WHO). More common in developing than developed countries, a birth weight below 2,500 g contributes to a range of poor health outcomes like low fetal and neonatal mortality and morbidity, inhibited growth and cognitive development, and chronic diseases later in life. Birth weight is affected to a great extent by the mother’s own fetal growth and her diet from birth to pregnancy, and thus, her body composition at conception.

 More than 20 million infants worldwide, representing 15.5 %of all births are born with low birth weight, 95.6 % of them in developing countries. The level of low birth weight in developing countries (16.5 %) is more than double the level in developed regions (7 %).

figure 5

Half of all low birth weight babies are born in South-central Asia, where 27 % of all infants weigh less than 2,500 g at birth. Low birth weight levels in sub-Saharan Africa are around 15 %. Central and South America have, on average, much lower rates (10 %), while in the Caribbean the level is almost as high as in sub-Saharan Africa (14%). About 10 % of births in Oceania are low birth weight births. Interestingly, almost 70 % of all low birth weight births occur in Asia; mainly in India, which is also the country with the high prevalence of stunting.

To summarize:

Undernutrition is a major issue, the numbers talk by themselves:

  • 2 billion people worldwide are micronutrient deficient
  • 870 million undernourished people in the world
  • 800 million people worldwide are stunted
  • Asia and the Pacific have the largest share of the world’s hungry people (563 million)
  • 195 million children under 5 are stunted
  • 99 million children under 5 worldwide are underweight
  • 61 million children suffered from acute malnutrition, including 20 million suffering from severe acute malnutrition
  • 20 million children are born with restricted intrauterine growth or prematurely
  • Every year at least 3.5 million of children under 5 die from malnutrition-related causes
  • Women make up a little over half of the world’s population, but they account for over 60% of the world’s hungry
  • 468 million women aged 15 to 49 years (30% of all women) are anemic, at least half because of iron deficiency

Tackling the issue of undernutrition in the word will need significant progress in India because:

  • 230 million people go hungry daily (~1/3 of the worldwide undernourished people)
  • An estimated 40% of the world’s severely malnourished children under 5 live in India
  • 60 million children are underweight
  • 48 % children under 5 are stunted
  • Half of the country’s children are chronically malnourished and 80 % are anemic
  • 30 % of children are born with low birth weight
  • Child malnutrition is responsible for 22 % of the country’s burden of disease
  • At least half of infant deaths are related to malnutrition, often associated with infectious disease
  • More than 90 % of adolescent girls and 50 % of women are anemic



















14 responses to “Understanding the different dimensions of malnutrition (undernutrition) to maximize human capital development (Part 2: the facts)

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