Malnutrition is a serious epidemic often linked to poverty, food insecurity, social exclusions, and poor sanitation, among others. The world is still plagued by hunger, with over 900 million malnourished individuals living mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia and Pacific regions.
When we hear the term ‘malnourished’, we automatically think of an image of an emaciated child from rural communities suffering from food and nutrition scarcity. However, the malnutrition problem lies deeper, so much that along with 900 million people who are considered malnourished, there’s also 2.2. billion people or about 30 percent of the world’s population who are overweight or obese. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls this the ‘double burden of malnutrition’, characterized by the coexistence of undernutrition along with overweight and obesity, as well as diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as cancer, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
While it is easier to understand undernutrition or starvation due to its prevalence, overnutrition is a paradox that has now infiltrated not only wealthy nations but also developing and middle-income countries around the world.
Overnutrition is defined as overconsumption of food and nutrients to the point at which health is adversely affected, and more commonly caused by a diet that is energy-dense but nutrient-poor. It is often characterized by overweight and obesity along with its associated health problems. Sadly, today’s obesogenic culture is widespread, with prevalence of processed food, easy access to fast food chains, sugar-laden beverages, and people living a more sedentary lifestyle fueled further by technologies. To put it bluntly, we may be rich and have enough to eat, but our bodies are still hungry for proper nutrition.
The Philippines is not spared. According to the 8th National Nutrition Survey (NNS) conducted by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), three out of 10 Filipino adults are said to be obese, with 38 percent of them living in the National Capital Region (NCR). This brings to mind the correlation between urbanization and diet, where people from the cities have easy access to high calorie and ‘microwave’ diets, while rural dwellers benefit from homegrown crops. Children often get the short end of the stick too, with the study further showing that occurrence of obesity among children aged 0 to 5 years old is at 5%, while for children aged 6 to 10 years old, it is at 4.9%, and Filipino youth aged11 to 19 years old is at 8.3%.
Hence, while we are concerned by the still high percentage of hunger around the world, overnutrition is equally an alarming social and economic problem that we need to address. Health effects from overnutrition has caused nations billions due to increased NCD-related spending, decreased productivity, and even lower life expectancy.
In a report released by the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition, obesity has been shown to cost the Philippines between US$500 million and US$1 billion, equivalent to between four percent and eight percent of its healthcare spending. This makes the country the fourth-highest spender for obesity-related problems in 2016. Apart from economic impacts, obesity also reduces productive years and life spans. The Philippines is the worst affected in terms of reduction of productive years among obese males—a significant eight to 12 years, followed by Malaysia at between six and 11 years, and Indonesia at between six and 10 years.
What can we do?
Governments and policymakers around the world have started intervention programs to address the double burden of malnutrition. WHO suggested exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months and continued breastfeeding for at least two years, appropriate complementary feeding, micronutrient supplementation, and fortification of staple foods. WHO also reiterated the need for policies and regulations that improve access to food as well as information and empowerment to consumers to promote sustainable food systems.
Closer to home, FNRI has also developed food products and supplements utilizing locally-grown crops that is said to appeal more to children including monggo frozen yogurt, instant mashed sweet potato premix, and brown rice puto premix. In 2014, in collaboration with the World Food Programme (WFP), FNRI also introduced “Momsie”, a supplementary food targeting children suffering from malnutrition. These are food innovations that maximize local resources resulting to lower cost and better accessibility to more Filipinos.
‘It all starts at home’ could never be truer though. Every food and lifestyle choice we make, no matter how small, contributes to the larger cause. Keeping ourselves in the know about what we put in our bodies and feed our family will make a huge difference in fighting malnutrition, both under and over nourishment. Learn to read the labels, plan your meals, and opt for natural whole food. Manage your caloric intake while ensuring that you get both macro and micronutrients that your body needs to function properly. (READ: Micros and macros and why they matter) Save your sugary and fast-food favorites on cheat days, or at least keep them at minimum. It all starts with you. Be truly rich!