food health

Global malnutrition is not what you think

When we think of malnutrition, the chances are we think of hunger, of people who don’t have enough to eat. But one of the striking facts about our global food system is that there are now more people who are overweight than there are underweight.


In 1980 there were 857 million overweight or obese people. That number has steadily risen, and a major study published in the Lancet last month now puts the figure at 2.1 billion. That’s nearly a third of the world’s population suffering from what the Faculty of Public Health refers to as ‘modern malnutrition’.

By contrast, the number of hungry people is around 870 million, according to the FAO.

The reasons for this aren’t rocket science. As portraits of Henry VIII show, obesity used to be the province of the fabulously wealthy. Only they could afford the fat and sugar content that led to that kind of weight gain. Those goodies have been democratised, and there is of course something to celebrate about that. Unfortunately the roles are now reversed, and in developed countries it is those on lower incomes that are more likely to be overweight. Processed foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat are now cheaper than the fresh food that is so much better for us.

As we look at the challenges of feeding the world in the 21st century, obesity is going to be an important dynamic. Tackling hunger is about getting food to the right places at the right prices, more than it is about quantity. The world already grows enough food for everyone. Modern malnutrition is different. It’s about our habits and choices, our food culture. And it’s much more political. Everyone can agree that feeding a hungry person is a good thing – but attempting to regulate fast food advertising or tax sugar are suddenly complicated. It’s hard to talk about weight issues without people feeling judged and affronted. But talk about it we must, if we want to see the rising quality of life that we aspire to.

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