In a global assessment of “the triple burden of malnutrition”, a recent study has found that world hunger is decreasing in the wake of rising obesity, revealing a growing problem: more over-nutrition in the place of under-nutrition.
Malnutrition is more than just a problem of deficiency, or hunger; it is also a problem of excess, or over-nutrition. In 2008, the Global Nutrition Index (GNI) was developed to reflect this fact, and in order to provide a metric of a country’s nutritional status.
GNI incorporates three factors in its calculation: undernourishment, micronutrient deficiency (or “hidden hunger”), as well as over-nutrition – the latter meaning that a country’s nutrition score is docked for its prevalence of obesity in addition a prevalence of under-nutrition. Thus, a country’s GNI is said to account for “the triple burden of malnutrition.”
As the United Nations have reportedly declared the years 2016-2025 to encompass “The Decade of Action on Nutrition”, two researchers from Qinghai University in China and Hebrew University Hassadah Medical School in Israel have conducted a study using an updated GNI calculation to determine regional, national, and global trends in nutritional status over the course of previous decades.
The study, conducted by Wen Peng and Elliot M. Berry and published yesterday in the journal PLOS One, assessed the nutritional status of 186 countries around the world from 1990-2015 by calculating GNI through “three updated indicators”: protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), micronutrient deficiency (through deficiencies in iron, vitamin A, iodine, zinc, and other micronutrients), and obesity. Due to the fact that the researchers did not have data for combined male and female obesity in the countries studied, they used values for the prevalence of female obesity in their calculations, noting in the report that these “values for females are usually higher than those for males.” GNI was calculated on a range of 0-1, with a higher score indicating a better overall nutritional status.
The 186 countries studied were classified into 7 regional groups based on categorizations made by the World Health Organization (WHO) and from World Bank income categories.
Through their updated calculations of GNI, and with the help of a variety statistical methods, the researchers found that, overall, world hunger has decreased significantly from 1990-2015, with sub-Sahara Africa and South Asia showing the most improvements in prevalence of under-nutrition. GNI for low and middle-income countries in Africa has increased from 0.301 to 0.392. For low and middle-income countries in America, Europe, as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Pacific regions, GNI have remained about the same over the years. However, for high-income countries, GNI has reduced from 0.657 to 0.611, as a result of a 50% increase in the prevalence of obesity between 1990 and 2014. It was also found that, save for those in Europe and Southeast Asia, all low and middle-income countries show an absolute increase in the prevalence of obesity.
Overall, the study found that global GNI increased from 0.433 to 0.473 from 1990-2015, reflecting a “substantial improvement in reducing hunger,” but at the same time what researchers say is a result that masks a global increase in over-nutrition.
Although the validity of GNI as a measure of a country’s overall nutritional status depends on the accuracy of the relevant statistics that the countries themselves provide, GNI provides a measure that can help guide government agencies around the world in the fight to reduce malnutrition.
The researchers responsible for the new study on global GNI urge that this fight should target both world hunger and obesity, a growing cause of global malnutrition.