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Scientists warn of ‘double burden of malnutrition’

20 December 2019

Crisis of obesity and undernourishment in world’s poorest community

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LOW-COST junk food and technology that encourages an inactive lifestyle have thrown the poorest communities in the world into a co-existing crisis of obesity and malnutrition, scientists have warned.

The research was published in the medical journal The Lancet on Monday, the first of four papers concerning the “double burden” of malnutrition around the world. About 2.28 billion children and adults are overweight, it estimates, while the growth of more than 150 million children has been stunted by malnutrition.

The lead author of the report, Dr Francesco Branca, who is the director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organization, said: “We can no longer characterise countries as low-income and undernourished, or high-income and only concerned with obesity.”

In 48 countries, a “severe double burden of malnutrition” was reported, meaning that more than 30 per cent of children aged zero to four were stunted, while one fifth (20 per cent) of the adult population were overweight.

The increase in overweight children and adults is due to the prevalence of low-cost junk food which has low nutritional value, the report states, together with a “decrease in physical activity due to major technological shifts in the workplace, home, and transportation.

“In South Asian and sub-Saharan African countries, the risk of overweight and obesity is greater among the higher-wealth households and urban areas, and in many other [low-income and middle-income countries] the risk of the [double burden of malnutrition] is starting to concentrate among people with low incomes and in rural areas.”

The international health community, the authors warn, has been “slow to acknowledge” the prevalence of both malnutrition — for example, micronutrient deficiencies, underweight children and adults, and childhood stunting and wasting — and obesity, overweight children and adults, and diet-related non-communicable diseases.

Dr Branca explained: “All forms of malnutrition have a common denominator: food systems that fail to provide all people with healthy, safe, affordable, and sustainable diets. Changing this will require action across food systems, from production and processing, through trade and distribution, pricing, marketing, and labelling, to consumption and waste.

“All relevant policies and investments must be radically re-examined.”

A spokeswoman for Christians Against Poverty (CAP) said: “This research supports our own on-the-ground experience. . . Many people on a very low income skip meals and eat cheaply. They fill up to ward off present hunger rather than for good health and nutrition in the future.

“Coupled with a lack of decent sleep, caused by stress and uncertainty, it rapidly affects a person’s well-being, both mentally and physically.”

Churches are helping to run CAP Life Skills courses to help people to make the most of their income, and understand food groups and supermarket bargains, she said.

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