What are the effects of hunger

World food

Lioba wine grower

Dr. Lioba Weingärtner is an ecotrophologist / nutritionist and works as a consultant, evaluator, trainer and moderator / facilitator for various national and international organizations in development cooperation and humanitarian aid.

An overview of definitions and implications

Hunger and worrying about daily food are as old as humanity. Nowadays, however, overeating and the consequences must also come into focus. Substantially improving this "double burden of malnutrition" is one of the most important future tasks. Because good nutrition is crucial for the well-being, health, fitness and performance of people and societies.

In a mobile health station in Tanzania, children are weighed in order to determine any malnutrition in good time. (& copy picture alliance / Kai-Uwe Wärner)

Forms of hunger and malnutrition

hunger describes the subjective feeling that people feel after a certain period of time without food. The word is usually equated with the terms lack of food or chronic calorie deficit.

Malnutrition describes either an intake of food energy (calories) that is too high or too low compared to the requirement, which then leads to over- or undernourishment.

Figure 1: Overweight and underweight in women (country examples).
BMI = body mass index; a measure of the nutritional status of adults. The BMI is calculated from the body weight (in kg) in relation to the body size squared (m2).
Source: Weingärtner, L. and Trentmann, C. (2011), p. 33
Malnutrition is the result of inadequate food intake or poor health and hygiene conditions that prevent the body from making adequate use of the food ingested. Malnutrition can be an acute or chronic condition. Various body characteristics provide information on this and the chronic problem of overeating (anthropometry). Since newborns and small children (up to five years of age) in particular react particularly quickly to inadequate food supply, their condition is used as an indicator of the nutritional status of the general population.

If the food provided is insufficient to meet the need for certain vitamins (e.g. vitamin A) and minerals (e.g. iodine or iron) because the supply is too one-sided or there is an increased need, we speak of micronutrient deficiencies or even of "hidden hunger".

Overeating and overweight (obesity) occur when the consumption of food energy continuously exceeds the need.

In many countries around the world, hunger and overeating occur at the same time (see Figure 1). This phenomenon is also called the "double the burden of malnutrition" designated.

In Chad, the height of a refugee child from Sudan is measured to determine whether there is malnutrition. License: cc by-nc-nd / 2.0 / de (Flickr / European Commission DG ECHO)

Consequences of hunger and malnutrition

Hunger and malnutrition have far-reaching consequences for individuals and their families, but also for entire societies.

Health effects

In severe cases, hunger and malnutrition - especially in combination with infectious diseases, to which malnourished are particularly susceptible - lead to death. The World Health Organization estimates that around a third of the 11 million infant deaths annually are directly or indirectly due to hunger and malnutrition. The less severe forms of malnutrition are also associated with physical and mental impairments and an increased susceptibility to disease. Malnutrition or "hidden hunger" are particularly dangerous in the first 1000 days of a child's life: the baby may be too light at birth (less than 2500 grams) or it may not grow properly afterwards. Hereditary characteristics do not play a role at this age compared to diet. The consequences of hunger and malnutrition shape the life of the child for years: They lead to limited development opportunities, reduced learning performance in school and lower work performance by (young) adults.

On the other hand, overeating is also dangerous: it is the cause of chronic diseases such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases, which in turn lead to increased mortality.

Economic consequences

Hunger and malnutrition not only have health consequences, but also economic consequences. Families have to save on longer-term livelihoods such as education and health in order to secure their nutrition in the short term. In times of crisis, they are often forced to sell parts of their property, which is not large anyway, such as household items or livestock, in order to be able to pay for food. So people slide even further into poverty.

From an economic point of view, the costs of hunger and malnutrition, but also of overeating, are high, especially in the (agricultural) economy, health care and education sector. In industrialized and many emerging countries, spending on diseases related to overeating and malnutrition is very high and growing rapidly. Overall, a society in which many people are physically and mentally ineffective in the short or even in the long term will lose a significant part of its economic power.

Social and Political Impact

Hunger and food prices have always been central causes of social tension and political or military conflicts. There are no longer such profound conflicts over food in the rich industrialized countries. The situation is very different in developing countries: food is a significant part of the total budget of most households there - and there is hardly any state welfare. The political consequences of hunger became particularly dramatic during the food price crisis in mid-2008.

Food insecurity is also a threat to international coexistence. Risks to the supply of people with food include restrictions on food exports (because this makes food more expensive), large differences in living conditions, migratory movements (people fleeing from the environment and poverty) and conflicts over land and water. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these conflicts.

Investing in better nutrition - a necessity and money well spent

Hunger, malnutrition and food crises are the cause of very different problems. In order to avoid individual, economic, societal and political damage and costs, urgent action must be taken.

Nutrition is a basic need and a human right

Adequate nutrition is a basic human need. The prerequisites for a healthy, contented and humane life are only met if we can meet our needs for sufficient and balanced food at all times.

Food is a human right. Widespread hunger and malnutrition are among the worst human rights violations globally. “Hunger is one of the worst violations of human dignity. In a world of abundance, the cessation of hunger is in our hands. Failure to achieve this goal should put us all to shame. The time of promises is over. It's time to act. It is time to implement what we have long promised: to get rid of hunger. ”This statement by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at the World Food Summit in Rome in 2002 illustrates the urgency of the problem, but also the inadequate successes to date.

Global world development goal

In the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) formulated by the global community in 2000, the top priority is that the proportion of hungry and undernourished small children is to be halved by 2015 compared to 1990. It should be noted, however, that because the population has grown significantly during this period, this does not mean that the number of hungry people will be halved compared to 1990. Shortly before this time expires, it becomes clear that the progress made so far is nowhere near enough to achieve the goals. Due to the close connections between nutrition and other areas of life, this means that other goals are also jeopardized - for example educational opportunities for children, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, resistance to diseases such as HIV / AIDS and tuberculosis, and the ecological sustainability of handling with natural resources (see box).


Influence of Millennium Development Goals (MDG) on other Millennium Development Goals

MDG1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Food insecurity and malnutrition impair physical and mental performance, reduce resistance to disasters and crises and lower productivity.

MDG 2: Realization of general basic education
Malnutrition inhibits mental performance and thus learning. Malnourished children are less likely to attend school than well-nourished children. They often go to school later.

MDG 3: Promote gender equality and empower women
The likelihood that malnourished girls will stay in school and thus have better prospects for the future is lower than with well-cared for.

MDG 4: lowering child mortality
Malnutrition is directly or indirectly responsible for more than half of child mortality. It is the leading cause of disease in developing countries.

MDG 5: Improving Maternal Health
The fact that women are often disadvantaged, also in terms of their diet, affects mothers in particular. Hunger and malnutrition are closely related to most of the risk factors for maternal mortality.

MDG 6: Fight against HIV / AIDS, malaria and other diseases
Food insecurity promotes adaptation mechanisms, for example labor migration and / or prostitution, which increase the spread of HIV / AIDS. Malnutrition accelerates the onset of AIDS in infected people. It also weakens the resistance to infection and reduces the chances of survival for malaria sufferers.

MDG 7: Ensuring ecological sustainability
Food insecurity leads to unstable, unsustainable use of natural resources.

Source: Weingärtner, L. and Trentmann, C. (2011), p. 45

Investing in nutrition is money well spent

Investing in better nutrition is investing in people's capacities, because this is how you support men, women, girls and boys in developing their potential for growth and development. Good nutrition also saves billions in costs that would otherwise have to be spent on treating the effects of hunger. The World Bank estimates that investing in nutrition programs is one of the most economical measures in the health sector. For economic reasons, too, it makes sense to get involved in improved nutrition.

peace and security

In addition, fighting hunger also makes sense from a peace and security policy perspective. Through unrest, upheavals, wars, piracy, migration, terrorism or trade slumps, the consequences of hunger ultimately also reach rich countries. Skeptical people in rich countries tend to accept food security aid on the grounds that it will secure peace than with the argumentation of development aid.

Diet should be a political priority

That is why improving and securing global food supply should be high on the priority list of political decision-makers in the years and decades to come. It is not about distributing alms to those in need, but about empowering people to actively shape their living conditions and to contribute to the common good. In this way economic, social and political stability can be achieved. In order to combat overeating and at the same time secure the nutrition of the growing world population, sustainable production and consumption behavior are necessary. The following chapters in this dossier deal with the individual instruments that are available for this purpose.


Elmadfa, I. (2009): Nutrition. UTB vol. 2509, 2nd edition

Klennert, K. (2009): Achieving Food and Nutrition Security. Actions to Meet the Global Challenge. A Training Course Reader. Update 2009. Feldafing

German Council for Sustainable Development (2012): The sustainable shopping cart. Simply shop better. A guide. 4th completely revised edition. Status: October 2012. Berlin

Weingärtner, L. and Trentmann, C. (2011): Handbook of World Food. Editor: German World Hunger Aid. Frankfurt (out of print as a book from the publisher); available as an e-book at: http://e-books.campus.de/product_info.php?info=p992 or as a book in the publication series of the Federal Agency for Civic Education at http: //www.bpb .de / shop / books / series / 35552 / handbook-welternaehrung (accessed: January 2013)

WHO (2012): Obesity and overweight. Fact sheet No. 311 May 2012