Researchers behind the Global Nutrition Report, which looked at 140 countries, said the problems were “putting the brakes on human development as a whole” and called for a critical change in the response to this global health threat.
More than 155mn children aged under five are stunted due to lack of nutrition, and 52mn are defined as “wasted” – meaning they do not weigh enough for their height, the report said.
At the other end of the spectrum, over-eating is taking a heavy toll on people of all ages worldwide: the report found that 2bn of the world’s 7bn people are now overweight or obese.
In North America, a third of all men and women are obese.
Worldwide, at least 41mn children under five are overweight, and in Africa alone, some 10mn children are now classified as overweight.
“Historically, maternal anaemia and child undernutrition have been seen as separate problems to obesity and non-communicable diseases,” said Jessica Fanzo, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the United States who co-led the Global Nutrition Report.
“The reality is they are intimately connected and driven by inequalities everywhere in the world. That’s why governments need to tackle them holistically, not as distinct problems.”
Funding for nutrition needs to be turbocharged. International donor contributions rose by just 2% in 2015, to $867mn, representing a slight fall in the overall percentage of global aid. Donors are allocating less than 0.01% of their development spend to non-communicable diseases.
But the quality of the response is also critical. We will not succeed in tackling malnutrition unless our efforts encompass both the causes and the effects of malnutrition.
That means rolling out proven and low-cost nutrition programmes, such as food supplementation, while simultaneously working across other sectors to improve healthcare systems, water and sanitation infrastructure, sustainable food production, peace and stability and gender equality, all of which play a critical role in nutrition.
Malnutrition now costs the global economy $3.5tn a year, yet smart spending on nutrition, especially in the first 1,000 days of life, is one of the most effective investments any government can make. We know that a well-nourished child is a third more likely to escape poverty and good nutrition provides the brainpower needed to build economies of the future. We need to move quickly, but there is still time to unleash nutrition’s powerful multiplier effect across the Global Goals.
Governments, international bodies, foundations and businesses are making new pledges and learning from recent successes. The message is clear: without a critical step change in the response to malnutrition, the world will not meet any of the global nutrition targets.
But beyond this, unless we address malnutrition, we will not meet any of the Sustainable Development Goals by the 2030 deadline. We cannot afford not to act.