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Editor’s note: In Context is a new series designed to inform and educate you on Heifer’s work in each country we have a presence. Every two weeks we’ll tackle a different country and examine unique situations related to hunger and poverty, how Heifer works to address them as well as take some time to explore local culture and traditions.

According to the World Health Organization, malnutrition affects one in three people worldwide and each of its forms kills more people globally than any other disease. It affects all age groups, but is especially common among the poor and those with inadequate access to health education, clean water and proper sanitation.

These are the facts:

  • Over 925 million people go to bed hungry every night
  • Every 6 seconds a child dies from malnutrition and related causes
  • Chronic food deficit affects 20% of the population in developing countries
  • More than 70% of children with protein-energy malnutrition live in Asia, 26% live in Africa, and 4% in Latin America and the Caribbean

Malnutrition, which exists even when hunger isn’t present, is when you lack the nutrients that your body needs to develop and grow. The two don’t always go hand in hand. There are instances where there is plenty to eat but one is still malnourished because the food that’s available or being consumed is not providing the body with the right nutrients it needs to be healthy and function. Clinically, malnutrition is characterized by inadequate or excess intake of protein, energy and micronutrients such as vitamins, and the frequent infections and disorders that result.

People who suffer from malnutrition are more likely to get sick and, in severe cases, often die from it. The percentage of deaths caused by malnutrition is unmatched by any other infectious disease since the Black Death. 

One is considered malnourished if:

  • They are unable to completely utilize the food they eat due to an illness. This is called secondary malnutrition. Food is not the answer to curing secondary malnutrition as illnesses like frequent diarrhea prevents your body from absorbing nutrients
  • Diet does not provide adequate calories and protein to grow and maintain the body, known as under nutrition or protein-energy malnutrition. It’s harder to recover from illness or disease in this case as your body needs more protein to recover than is normal. Protein-energy malnutrition contributes to half of all under-five deaths every year in developing countries
And, just to be clear, malnutrition means "bad" nutrition not "not enough" nutrition. Overnutrition is a form of malnutrition where too many calories are consumed. This is when the body is overloaded with nutrients and cannot process them effectively, resulting in obesity or vitamin poisoning

Effects of malnutrition:

  • Marasmus, which is the wasting of fat, muscle and other tissues
  • Cretinism and irreversible brain damage due to iodine deficiency, also causes mental retardation, delayed development and blindness in severe cases
  • Blindness and increased risk of infection and death from vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A deficiency is the biggest cause of preventable blindness in the developing world. Children in developing countries who have a severe vitamin A deficiency as a result of malnutrition have a greater chance of getting sick or of dying from infections such as diarrhea and measles.
  • Anemia, caused by iron deficiency, is estimated to affect more than 2 billion people worldwide. Iron deficiency can cause a person to be less active and less able to concentrate. Students who are malnourished often have trouble keeping up in school.

Here's a handy infographic from that describes what happens when you have too much or too little of something:

Oh, and one last (not so) little fact?  The world produces enough food to feed everyone in it.

Hunger and malnutrition can be stopped. You can pitch in today by visiting the Heifer Gift Catalog. To learn more on how Heifer works to end hunger, click here.






Falguni Vyas

Falguni (sounds like "balcony") Vyas is from Atlanta, Georgia and began working with Heifer International in Little Rock as a copywriter in 2011. She received her master's degree at Istituto Marangoni in Milan, Italy and her bachelor's degree at Franklin College Switzerland in Lugano, Switzerland. She does not like writing about herself in the third person.