The Changing Face of Malnutrition

November 12, 2012 • Blogs, Online Content, The Globalist Notebook • Views: 967


The poorest areas of developing nations are defined by constancy. As passing decades transform the realities of daily life elsewhere, the poorest populations lead lives out of the previous era. Remaining poor across generations, they toil for subsistence the same as their grandfathers, walk the same unpaved roads, and suffer from the same curable illnesses. Hunger, privation, and lack of infrastructure are constants. One aspect, however, has changed entirely: malnutrition.

Globalization has expanded international markets and cultural exchange. Food is no exception. Under-developed areas were once shielded from international food giants like Nabisco or Mars. This is no longer the case. Junk food has clawed its way into the most isolated corners of the jungle, the most cut-off desert shantytowns. The inhabitants of these areas see advertisements for Lay’s Potato Chips on boxy old TV sets and buy flats of coke in green-tinted glass bottles. This new accessibility of processed and preserved foods has shifted the very foundations of eating. Vulnerable populations’ diets, once entirely based in local meat and produce, now center on getting a fix of soda and snack foods. This transition makes malnutrition a trickier target by adding new breadth to the health problems confronting poor, developing communities.

While these boys in Kenya may not look conventionally starved or malnourished, they face the problem of an abundance of Coca Cola and other junk foods inundating their diet. (Flickr Creative Commons/Lvovsky)

The rampant expansion of poor eating habits has served as a pied piper to whole other host of health pests.  Unhealthy eating, an enormous problem in resource rich, well-educated countries, has thrust an especially malignant root into communities lacking experience and education in balancing excesses. The globalization of diabetes exemplifies the consequences of the spread of processed foods. Along with contributing genetic factors, type 2 diabetes is caused by the constant inundation of the body with excess sugar. Only decades ago, type 2 diabetes was called a disease of the West. Now, 4 out of every 5 people with type 2 diabetes live in developing countries.

Soda, too, causes ills of its own.  Twenty years ago, the average child living in the rural villages of poor El Salvador had generally healthy teeth. But one study in 2004 completed by a UC Berkeley School of Public Health Professor found that was no longer the case. Of the children living in the same area today, 85% of children have tooth decay and 47% had mouth pain. The mouth pain is often severe enough to induce frequent crying and scatterbrained focus in school.

The adulteration of junk food into poor, rural communities over recent decades has made malnutrition a more evasive target for global health initiatives. Once plainly evident in jutting cheekbones and protruding ribs, malnutrition is now a more furtive adversary. Because the calories in junk food are empty calories, people eating primarily processed foods still lack the nutrients and vitamins that increase resistance to disease, facilitate growth, and lengthen life.

So what is there to be done? Simply put, it is time to embrace the many facets of eating behavior that lead to overall good health, encompassing all types of health, rather than a narrowly defined one that misses out on the bigger, more important picture. After all, the face of malnourishment, for the first time in history, could be a chubby one.

Amelia Earnest ’14 is in Pierson College. She is a Notebook blogger on issues relating to Global Public Health. Contact her at

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