Worldwatch Paper #150: Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition
Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil
For the first time in human history, the number of overweight people rivals the number of underweight people, according to a forthcoming report from the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based research organization. While the world's underfed population has declined slightly since 1980 to 1.1 billion, the number of overweight people has surged to 1.1 billion.
Both the overweight and the underweight suffer from malnutrition, a deficiency or excess in a person's intake of nutrients and other dietary elements needed for healthy living. "The hungry and the overweight share high levels of sickness and disability, shortened life expectancies, and lower levels of productivity-each of which is a drag on a country's development," said Gary Gardner, co-author with Brian Halweil of Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition.
The public health impact is enormous: more than half of the world's disease burden-measured in "years of healthy life lost"-is attributable to hunger, overeating, and widespread vitamin and mineral deficiencies. "The century with the greatest potential to eliminate malnutrition instead saw it boosted to record levels," said Gardner.
The number of hungry people remains high in a world of food surpluses. In the developing world, there are 150 million underweight children, nearly one in three. And in Africa, both the share and the absolute number of children who are underweight are on the rise.
Meanwhile, the population of overweight people has expanded rapidly in recent decades, more than offsetting the health gains from the modest decline in hunger. In the United States, 55 percent of adults are overweight by international standards. A whopping 23 percent of American adults are considered obese. And the trend is spreading to children as well, with one in five American kids now classified as overweight. Liposuction is now the leading form of cosmetic surgery in the United States, for example, at 400,000 operations per year
Surprisingly, overweight and obesity are advancing rapidly in the developing world as well. "Often, nations have simply traded hunger for obesity, and diseases of poverty for diseases of excess," said co-author Brian Halweil. Still struggling to eradicate infectious diseases, many developing nations' health care systems could be crippled by growing caseloads of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses.