Hunger and Obesity: Two Faces of Inequality

By Diana Guarnizo*


There is enough food in the world to provide healthy food to the entire population. However, the hunger and obesity present in the world cause millions of avoidable deaths. According to 2014 dat from the World Health Organization, 1.9 billion adults are overweight, and of those, 600 million are obese. At the same time, around 794 million people lack sufficient food to live a healthy life. Although the highest levels of obesity are most frequent in middle and high income countries, while the highest levels of malnourishment are in low income countries, it is not uncommon to see hunger and obesity in the same country, region, or even family, in what has been called the double burden of malnourishment and malnutrition.

This double burden has been particularly strong in middle income countries, such as Latin America, India, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. In these regions (highlighted in green on the map), economic development of recent years has translated into an effective reduction in malnourishment. However, malnourishment rates are still medium-high (between 2.42 and 12.45 deaths due to malnourishment for every 100,000 people in 2015).

At the same time, the increase in purchasing power of people from these regions, in addition to other causes, such as the increase in urbanization, lower costs of commercialized products at a global scale, among others, has also led to an important increase in levels of overweight and obesity, particularly in Latin America. Latin American countries (shown in dark yellow or orange), most middle income, have a high prevalence of obesity, and increasing rates of overweight. This means that more than 40% of the population has a body mass index (BMI) greater or equal to 25 kg/ 25Kg/m2. A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered normal, between 25.0 and 29.9 is overweight, and greater than 30 is obese.

Source: World Health Organization (2015)

Source: World Health Organization (2015)

What happens with food distribution systems in these countries where malnourishment, overweight, and obesity go together? The answer depends on each country, and usually involves more than one factor, but there is one that is key in this process in each country: politics.

With respect to malnourishment, poverty, deficient investment in local agriculture, and the lack of planning to contain climate change or international prices are all man-made situations, in which States can and should intervene.

With respect to overweight and obesity, the absence of controls on the commercialization of food with high caloric content, as well as incentives for the consumption of healthy food, rapid urbanization in countries, and access to increasingly global markets, have permitted a rapid increase in the consumption of these products, particularly in urban areas.

In both cases, State in actionis base don blind faith in the benefits of the “free market.” In the case of malnourishment, States that decide not to intervene trust that the market is the best distributor of food, limiting themselves to intervene in only the most serious cases of hunger, through welfare policies. In the case of obesity, the States trust that in a world with sufficient information, consumers (rational agents) will know how to make the best decisions for their own good.

Both premises are mistaken. With respect to the first, the market has shown itself to be ineffective at meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged without access to means of production.

With respect to the second, literature has shown several market deficiencies. First, in middle and high income countries that have opted for a general health system, the social costs of obesity are enormous and must be assumed by all citizens. Second, given the regulatory problems regarding the efficient labeling of products, consumers do not have all the necessary information to decide. Even when adequate labels exist, consumers do not have adequate training to read and interpret them.

This preference for inaction in countries with emerging economies is a political decision that has concrete consequences with respect to equality. In a study by Mendez and Popkin (2004) the researchers showed that in less urban areas or countries, those in the lowest socio-economic strata are more likely to suffer from hunger and malnourishment. However, the opposite occurs in urban countries or areas, where poor people are more likely to be overweight and obese. This means that depending on the level of urbanization of the area in which they live, people have a greater likelihood of suffering a double burden of poor nutrition: they are either malnourished or overweight.

An efficient State that is committed to protecting and ensuring the right to food and health of its citizens should intervene to correct these problems that the market cannot solve. States can and must do more to ensure the availability, economic accessibility, and acceptability of food in all areas and for all populations (urban and rural, schools, public spaces, etc.), as well as teaching their citizens how to make good eating decisions.

Hunger and obesity are avoidable in today’s world. They are the result of political decisions that States have made regarding the production, commercialization, and distribution of food. State inaction only favors the strongest competitors (i.e. the food industry), whose main interest is not health and nutrition, but rather, economic benefits. In such an environment, it should not be surprising that the weakest competitors (farmers lacking means of production to compete in a global agricultural industry, children in urban areas, and poor people) must assume the double burden of malnourishment or overweight.


*Diana Guarnizo is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).

Photo credit: UN against hunger