The world is moving towards a picture in which the numbers of hungry are timidly declining and the number of overweight people is increasing at a worrying rate.
The largest annual nutrition report highlights data such as that there is a “staggering” number of 677.6 million obese adults in the world and that 149 million children under the age of five are stunted.
Experts issue two caveats: you have to look at the data beyond the national averages so that they do not mask inequalities within borders, and where ultra-processed foods are reaching places where they were previously unthinkable.
The study has been carried out by an independent group of 18 experts from universities, health institutes, foundations, and UN agencies.
This report shows a more detailed reality in which we no longer only analyze the distinctions between countries, but also at the regional level. There are people who are falling behind within their own borders while others move forward.
That distinction between an underdeveloped world full of hungry people and the rich, with overweight citizens, is blurred. We can now find malnourished populations in middle-income and overweight countries in poor countries.
Research is not quantitative, but qualitative. That is, it collects statistics, studies and research already prepared to examine the complete picture. All of this was analyzed before the coronavirus crisis.
The food system cannot be understood separately from what is happening, because it reflects the same imbalances that we are seeing with the pandemic. If a body is not well fed and with the necessary nutrients, it will respond worse to disease. And if furthermore, health systems are precarious, the level of vulnerability increases.
The study includes 150 countries throughout the world where significant levels of three indicators are analyzed: acute, chronic malnutrition and an overweight population.
Thus, 50 countries are left out, almost all of them high-income. This is a report that has been carried out since the first world nutrition for development summit was held in 2013 and is promoted by governments, international organizations, philanthropic foundations and other entities.
The greatest disparities are observed in countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia or India. Huge territories in which many contexts coexist under the same umbrella.
On the other side of the coin, countries like Peru, Algeria or Egypt show great progress in reducing inequalities. Given these distinctions, specialists ask themselves a question: does it make sense to apply the same policy at the national level?
Inequality no longer marks lack of access to food. The report provides another interesting fact: the same person can suffer from malnutrition and, years later, obesity.
This is explained because in its first years, it has not received necessary nutrients or, even, a mother has not ingested them during pregnancy. And afterward, a child does not have access to healthy food either but to ultra-processed products.
Since 2010, the number of overweight children and adolescents has increased from 10.3% to 19.2% among boys, and from 10.3% to 17.5% among girls.
This is exemplified by Professor Derek Headey: “The calories from eggs in Burkina Faso, for example, are approximately 15 times more expensive than those from starchy staples like corn or rice, while the calories from eggs in the United States together are only 1.9 times more expensive.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, eggs, fresh milk and infant cereals are prohibitively expensive for the poor, although fish is relatively affordable.
There is still little data on the role of processed foods and sugary drinks in the diets of low- and middle-income countries.
We do have industry sales data that shed light on how purchases of these products are changing worldwide. Sales increase modestly or decrease in many high-income countries, but grow rapidly in developing countries.
In this globalized world, ultra-processed industries reach places that were previously impossible. The research included in the analysis shows that Kenyans who shop in supermarkets instead of traditional stalls are 7% more likely to become overweight.
“For this reason, we stress that in those countries where the legislation is laxer and where there are fewer controls, the governments must become more involved and establish more quality controls,” the report concludes.