Texas Tech University

Experts: Malnutrition a Crisis Due To Lack of Priorities, Wasted Resources

Heidi Toth

September 30, 2015

The findings are not a surprise, said two Texas Tech University scientists who have studied global nutrition and seen its effects.

One third of people on Earth suffer from malnutrition, with the spectrum running from not having enough food to not getting sufficient nutrients from food to being overweight or obese, according to the second annual Global Nutrition Report, released in late September.

Those findings are not a surprise, said two Texas Tech University scientists who have studied global nutrition and seen its effects on people and societies in dozens of countries. Mary Murimi and Wilna (pronounced Vil-nah) Oldewage-Theron see malnutrition in all its forms in every country, ranging from African nations to Indian slums to cities in the United States. They are not surprised by how little is being done about the malnutrition crisis, which both attributed not to a lack of resources but to a lack of priorities among a country's leaders.

Murimi consulted on malnutrition in her native Kenya before coming to Texas Tech. She watched as families harvest mangoes, greens and eggs on their small farms, sold them at the market and used the money to buy white bread, sugar, flour and soda. She also worked in Louisiana, where she focused on the obesity and overweight aspect of the malnutrition spectrum, and has studied malnutrition in other African countries.

Oldewage-Theron spent 18 years in her native South Africa doing community nutrition and education. She went into rural and frequently poor communities and assessed their nutritional needs, then suggested solutions to the community leaders, including supplements, nutrition education, gardening and other ways to deal with food insecurity.

Mary Murimi, professor of nutritional sciences, (806) 834-1812 or mary.murimi@ttu.edu

  • Although she is not surprised at the rate of malnutrition in general, she is surprised a country like Kenya, which is technologically advanced and has a well-educated population and a good economy, is one of the 34 countries with the highest rate of malnutrition.
  • “I realized malnutrition is poverty supplemented by a lack of knowledge.”
  • Often a country's leaders do not prioritize malnutrition or nutrition adequacy for all members of the country, so resources are expended elsewhere. For example, she has met people so poor they don't have permanent housing or sufficient clothing or food, but they have cell phones.
  • In addition to lack of priority by policymakers, “the voices of the malnourished children are silent. Leaders are not encountering the faces of malnutrition on a daily basis.”
  • Lack of infrastructure in developing countries can contribute to malnutrition among vulnerable groups. For example, in rural parts of the world, with poor roads and no irrigation, food can neither be grown nor easily trucked in. In the deserts of Kenya, the roads are too bad for distributors to truck in food, and they can't grow anything because there is no water. These conditions contribute to malnutrition, but strategic policies could address that problem through constructing all-weather roads and providing incentives for food distribution to marginalized areas.
  • “We used to think of obesity was a disease of the affluent. We're finding now it's more in poor society, and that is because of food insecurity survival. When a mother doesn't have enough food, she gets what's affordable, which often is food in nutrients and higher in calories.”

Wilna Oldewage-Theron, professor of nutritional sciences, (806) 834-0567 or wilhelmina.theron@ttu.edu

  • Although some developing countries do suffer from a lack of resources, including knowledge, capital and human resources, many have enough natural resources to make strides in reducing malnutrition. In Africa, where Oldewage-Theron has done most of her work, many countries are plagued with natural disasters and human conflict that reduce agricultural opportunities and lead to greater food insecurity
  • Malnutrition is not always visible. A starving or obese child can be categorized, but nutrition deficiencies caused by eating calorie-dense, nutrient-deficient foods such as cereal-based or junk food, is noticeable primarily in behavior, which an untrained person may not recognize.
  • “There is enough food in the world for everybody.”
  • There is a significant amount of food wasted in every country. In the United States and other developed countries, most food is wasted at the consumer level; it goes bad in people's refrigerators. In developing countries, more food is spoiled at the production and processing level because they lack infrastructure like cold storage, roads to transport goods to markets and processing plants.
  • Obesity and being overweight also contribute to malnutrition because of the negative effects these conditions have on a person's health. Additionally, it is not uncommon to see an overweight or obese person who experiences “undernutrition” because he or she is not getting sufficient nutrients from food.

Highlights from the report

  • “Good nutrition signals the realization of people's rights to food and health. … Without good nutrition, human beings cannot achieve their full potential. When people's nutrition status improves, it helps break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, generates broad-based economic growth and leads to a host of benefits for individuals, families, communities and countries.”
  • “Malnutrition takes many forms: children and adults who are skin and bone, children who do not grow properly, people who suffer because their diets are imbalanced, and people who are obese or suffer from nutrition-related noncommunicable diseases. … Nearly half of all countries face multiple serious burdens of malnutrition such as poor child growth, micronutrient deficiency and adult overweight.”
  • According to the World Health Organization, 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese, 42 million children are overweight, 161 million children 5 years or younger are too short, and 51 million children don't weigh enough. One in 12 adults has Type 2 diabetes.
  • Countries that have made progress have created a political environment conducive to nutrition-improving actions, made committed investments in high-impact, cost-effective nutrition interventions and adopted policies in a wide range of economic and social sectors expected to contribute to nutrition advancement.

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