Undernutrition occurs when there are deficiencies in terms of the energy intake in a diet and is commonly related to poor access to safe nutritious food. Undernutrition includes stunting (low height-for-age), wasting (low weight-for-height), underweight (low weight-for-age) and deficiencies in micronutrients (e.g. insufficient vitamin levels). Those that have undernutrition have an increased risk of infectious diseases such as diarrhoeal diseases, with children even having impaired mental and physical development.

Undernutrition is a global health problem with over 462 million people around the world being underweight, with approximately 156 million children being stunted and 50 million children classified as wasting. The ongoing global effort has reduced undernutrition occurring in the developing world but the burden of undernutrition is still significant today. Poor diets are responsible for approximately 50% of child deaths below 5 years of age and the highest prevalence is without a doubt in South Asia and the Sub-Saharan Africa. A staggering 40% of the population of children under the age of 5 are considered stunted.


Undernutrition is a part of a vicious cycle that begins from poor access to nutritional and safe food and ends with poor health outcomes. The effects are felt globally as undernutrition at a young age decreases brain and physical development and thus hinders future growth in effected countries. Both the developing world and the developed have incidences of undernutrition. In the developing world the access to safe nutritional food such as fruits and meat are limited, whilst in the developed world, access to food that is high in saturated fats and sugars potentiates micronutrient deficiencies – a type of undernutrition. Thus it is common for communities in both the developing world and developed world to have incidences of undernutrition. However those in the developing world are more significantly affected, as there is a greater prevalence of linked diseases and developmental issues.


The double burden of undernutrition refers to the fact that undernutrition and obesity are linked by the fact that those with undernutrition in their youth may be predisposed to obesity and other non-communicable diseases in the future. This gives rise to opportunities for changing the outcomes of both undernutrition and obesity as a whole. The UN has established that the key to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals will be by addressing undernutrition in both developing and developed countries. A possible initiative is through the prevention of food wastage, instead using excess food to feed the millions of undernourished people around the world. The Lancet Maternal and Child Nutrition Series established 3 core components for an action plan against undernutrition and obesity:

  1. Nutrition-specific interventions: such as the RUTF (ready-to-use therapeutic food) program established by the WHO that provides malnourished children access to sufficient long-lasting nutritious food
  2. Nutrition-sensitive interventions: they address the underlying problems of the malnutrition e.g. improving living conditions
  3. Building an enabling environment: political and economic considerations

There are obvious challenges ahead, as the demand for safe and nutritious food around the world increases due to the marked increase in population. That is why the world needs to act now. Decreasing undernutrition prevalence is the key for improving the sustainability of the world, especially for those in developing countries. By reducing the incidence of undernutrition, the vicious cycle will no longer dictate the development of our future and our general health outcomes would be expected to improve significantly.


  1. World Health Organization. What is malnutrition?[Internet]. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2016 Jul [cited 2017 Feb 8]. Available from: http://www.who.int/features/qa/malnutrition/en/
  2. World Health Organization. Double burden of malnutrition [Internet]. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2015 Sep [cited 2017 Feb 8]. Available from: http://www.who.int/nutrition/double-burden-malnutrition/infographics/en/
  3. Bakare-Ogunnubi B. Malnutrition and child survival in Nigeria (Internet). The Guardian, Nigeria; 2016 Jul (cited 2017 Feb 8). Available from: https://guardian.ng/guardian-woman/malnutrition-and-child-survival-in-nigeria-2/
  4. Smith LC, Haddad L. Reducing child undernutrition: past drivers and priorities for the post-MDG era. World Development. 2015 Apr 30;68:180-204.
  5. Collins S, Dent N, Binns P, Bahwere P, Sadler K, Hallam A. Management of severe acute malnutrition in children. The Lancet. 2006 Dec 8;368(9551):1992-2000.
  6. Bhutta ZA. Why has so little changed in maternal and child health in south Asia?. BMJ: British Medical Journal. 2000 Sep 30;321(7264):809.

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