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Understanding the true cost of malnutrition

The cost of malnutrition to the global economy in lost productivity and health care expenditures is staggering.


16 Jul 2014

Malnutrition isn’t just a problem of hunger in developing countries—it exists in all regions and across socio-economic classes.

The effects on human health

Besides undernutrition, malnutrition also includes micronutrient-deficient diets and overweight and obesity. Chronic malnutrition can have serious, often life-threatening, health consequences, especially for children.

  • Undernutrition can lead to physical and cognitive stunting, and makes children more susceptible to infectious diseases.
  • Micronutrient deficiencies can cause severe illnesses and physical impairments, including anemia, mental retardation, blindness, and spinal and brain birth defects.
  • Overweight and obesity increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart disease, cancer, joint problems and gall bladder problems.

The effects on social and economic development

Malnutrition keeps people from reaching their full potential. Malnourished children underperform in school, limiting their future job opportunities. Malnourished adults are less able to work, contribute to local economies, and provide care for their families. Malnourished mothers are more likely to have underweight children, who will in turn have a higher risk of physical and cognitive impairment. This perpetuates a cycle of poverty and economic stagnation.

The cost of malnutrition is high, but investing in solutions can improve nutritional outcomes long term. Recent research showed that investing US$1.2 billion annually in micronutrient supplements, food fortification and biofortification of staple crops for five years would generate annual benefits of US$15.3 billion, a benefit-to-cost ratio of almost 13 to 1, and would result in better health, fewer deaths and increased future earnings (SOFA 2013).

Healthy diets and good nutrition start with food and agriculture—improved food systems can provide a wider variety of nutritious foods at more affordable prices. Many of these food system changes must be directed by coordinated nutrition policies from governments, which is one of the objectives of the upcoming Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2). However, consumers can also improve their personal health by making smart dietary choices.

Interested in learning more about how you can improve your diet and eating habits? Check out our article with a list of recommendations.

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