Full stomachs are not enough

16 Oct 2019

To mark World Food Day, Callum Northcote, RESULTS’ Policy Advocacy Officer (Nutrition) tells us why it’s not just about having enough food to eat, but having enough of the right food to eat.

You know that feeling when you’re counting down to lunch? You keep checking the clock to see if colleagues or peers will judge the timing of your sandwich. The crisps you’ve bought may be winking at you, and the feeling in your stomach is making it hard to rip the bag open. That same feeling that hits as you get home in the evening to the smell of something cooking, or the realisation that you’re going to have to go through the fridge and sort something for yourself. Of course, that feeling is being hungry. But what if, every time you ate, you satisfied that feeling with the same food? Your stomach might be full, but full stomachs are not enough. You’ve heard it said the variety is the spice of life, but in terms of what we eat, variety is the fuel of life.

Today (16 October) is World Food Day, which provides a key moment to focus on a shocking statistic: 820 million people are undernourished. But what does that actually mean? And what does it have to do with being hungry? Undernutrition and hunger are closely linked but they are different. You can have a full plate three times a day but be undernourished. How? Because nutrition is more than how much food you eat, but is about the quality of the food you consume and how able you are to absorb the nutrients from it.

This may sound technical but really it isn’t. Think about it this way. Any food can placate that grumbling stomach, and yet we know that some foods are better for us than others. When I was a child, I was told to eat my vegetables so I would grow big and tall and maybe you were too? Or did you also get told milk helps to make your bones strong? What is in our food is as important as having food because filling our stomachs is just part of the story. If we don’t get the right nutrients from a varied diet then we are only hiding deeper problems.

Good nutrition means people receive the vital nutrients needed to survive and thrive. This is done through proper breastfeeding and complementary feeding of infants in early years, followed by a varied diet including carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and fibre, if necessary, supported by supplements (such as mineral or vitamin supplements).

Getting the right nutrients matters for a number of reasons:

  • It means that children and adolescents grow to their full potential both physically and cognitively. If they don’t get this then they are at risk of stunting. Stunting curbs a person’s potential and limits their ability to thrive at school and later at work. Low stunting rates have been recognised by the World Bank as a key component of a productive workforce. It is often caused by chronic undernutrition in the first 1000 days of life.
  • It helps prevent wasting. A severe form of acute malnutrition where a person is too thin for their height. This is an urgent health risk to someone’s life.
  • It helps to ensure that women do not suffer deficiencies due to menstrual losses or should they choose to become mothers it helps healthy pregnancies. Getting the wrong food during pregnancy increases the risks of maternal or infant deaths. Should a girl survive her mother’s undernourishment, and when she grows up choose to have children she is more likely to give birth to an undernourished child. The cycle then carries on. Anaemia, often caused by iron deficiency, affects around 1 in every 3 women globally.

But what does this mean in reality? In the crudest terms, it means that people die unnecessarily. Malnutrition contributes to about 45% of all deaths of children under-5 years old. Undernourished people are more likely to become sick with deadly diseases such as TB; they are less likely to respond positively to vaccines; and should they become sick, they are less likely to survive. Good nutrition is therefore a key part of a person’s health. Much development attention is given to ensuring good health systems are in place to keep people healthy. This work is imperative but if we don’t do this brick by brick and fully integrate nutrition into the work we are doing then we are not doing it properly.

Don’t get me wrong, no-one should go to bed hungry wherever they are in the world. But the solution to hunger isn’t to mask it with foods of little nutritional benefit that do nothing to lower stunting rates. Keeping stomachs filled might have an impact on survival rates but to me that isn’t good enough. Why limit ambition? Why approach a problem and come up with a solution that doesn’t even solve half the issues? We need to understand hunger beyond that feeling in the stomach. We need to promote healthy and diverse diets that are accessible and affordable for all and see treatment of undernutrition as a health treatment.

We can end undernutrition. Japan is hosting the Nutrition for Growth 2020 Summit next year. It is a key opportunity for action, particularly for DFID. The UK has recently committed to ending preventable under-5 deaths by 2030. Making sure good nutrition is an outcome that is prioritised and well-financed throughout all their work is a critical way of doing that.

Callum Northcote

Policy Advocacy Officer (Nutrition)

Callum Northcote leads RESULTS UK’s policy advocacy work on nutrition. Callum firmly believes that policy change is an essential way to readdress global inequality and that undernutrition is a major barrier to progress. Callum has previously worked for the Scottish Government and in advocacy...

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RESULTS UK is a charity registered as RESULTS Education in England and Wales (1015286), a company limited by guarantee (2761858), and a charity registered in Scotland (SC041481).