A saddening number of countries around the world are dealing with major nutritional crises. Some are in the throes of devastating droughts that are causing starvation. Others have large gaps between those who have far too much food and those struggling just to survive. Still others are amid serious health crises caused by obesity, overeating, and copious amounts of calorie-rich but nutrient-deficient foods. Each of these crises presents its own challenges and there is no easy solution that will ensure that all people, regardless of location, wealth, or status will have access to the high-quality food they need not only to survive but to thrive. Here, we’ve collected some of the nations that are currently dealing with a variety of major nutritional crises, some more severe than others, but all putting the lives of millions of people at risk every day.
- Democratic Republic of the Congo:
The DRC is perhaps one of the most unstable countries in Africa, ravaged by violence, disease, poverty, and seemingly unending political unrest. As a result, the DRC is the most severely malnourished country in the world. (India has more malnourished people as a whole, but the DRC has a higher percentage of the population facing malnutrition.) Just how bad is it? Currently, 73% of the population is undernourished, including 1.9 million children. Much of the crisis is due to a ruined infrastructure and agricultural lines that have been cut off or taken hostage by armed groups. In some regions of the nation, acute malnutrition rates, those that require immediate intervention, are as high as 15%, putting many Congolese at risk of death from starvation and lifelong health issues caused by nutritional deficiencies.
For the past few years, the Sahel region of Chad has been under the shadow of one of the worst nutritional crises in the world. Erratic rainfall, failed harvests, high food prices, and poor access to healthcare have all played a role in pushing rates of malnutrition in the country sky high. Recent surveys estimate that more than 5% of children under 5 are severely malnutritioned, with an estimated 5,000 at risk of death. Even outside of the Sahel, however, things aren’t great nutritionally speaking, with more than two-thirds of the population living in poverty and 41% of children enduring chronic malnutrition. Many of Chad’s citizens work in agriculture, which has historically been unreliable and neither a good source of food nor income for many families. At present, the United Nations estimates that a full third of the country’s population is undernourished and vitamin deficiencies, especially for Vitamin A and iron, are widespread.
The Sahel region extends beyond the borders of Chad and into neighboring Niger, which has also been hit extraordinarily hard by the droughts and food shortages that have plagued Chad. As of early 2012, the United Nations estimated that more than 30% of Nigerians were food insecure, a whopping 3.8 million people, many of them children. While things are worst in the Sahel, the rest of the nation isn’t faring well either. World Food Programme statistics show that more than half of the population of Niger lives below the poverty line. This has dire effects, especially on children. One in 10 children under 5 are affected by acute malnutrition and 50% of children have some degree of stunting related to this severe malnutrition. Nationwide, a diet based primarily on cereal products leaves many without enough Vitamin A or iron, a problem which a new national supplementation program hopes to stem.
Mali is another country touched by the crisis in the Sahel, along with Burkina Faso and Sudan. The droughts and failed harvests in the Sahel have been further exacerbated by problems related to the coup and rebel takeover in March 2012 and political instability that followed. In many areas, food prices have risen to three times their previous levels, leaving many unable to afford the food they need to survive. Agricultural production has risen in many areas of Mali over the past decade, but undernourishment still affects more than 10% of the population and chronic food insecurity persists throughout much of the nation’s rural areas. Yet Mali may be on the brink of a nutritional crisis of another kind in its major cities, where almost a third of adult women are overweight or obese. This dichotomy of feast or famine has made addressing the country’s nutritional problems difficult, though things seem to have improved moderately in recent years, though in an unstable nation such as Mali it is almost impossible to predict where things will be in the decades to come.
- North Korea:
In late 2011, UNICEF began asking for additional help to aid millions of people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who were at risk of becoming or already are seriously malnourished. The nation as a whole is highly food insecure due to reductions in daily rations, unreliable food supplies, and restricted agricultural production. Potato and barley fields were frozen during a harsh winter and flooding destroyed fields of rice and maize, nearly doubling the number of children admitted to hospitals with malnutrition. Limited information is available on just how widespread the crisis is in the Asian nation, as government controls prevent reliable statistics from being gathered, but UN estimates say that up to one-third of North Koreans have experienced stunting due to malnutrition, leaving them two to five inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts. The World Food Program estimates that at least 400,000 metric tons of grain are needed to keep the crisis from developing any further, but with the government diverting a portion of the aid to military and elites, it may take more than that to make ends meet.
While many of the countries on this list have experienced dramatic changes in nutrition due to events outside human control, the trend in Thailand toward poor nutrition has been a slow and steady downward slide. Social and economic changes have created major shifts in food consumption patterns and nutrition, especially in major cities where traditional Thai meals are being replaced with more animal products and processed foods. Over the past few decades, rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diet-related ailments have skyrocketed. The Thai National Statistical Office reports that 90% of Thais consume fatty foods on a regular basis and more than 39 million Thais over 11 report not exercising at all. All of this has resulted in a nation that isn’t getting the nutrition it needs, and medical costs nationwide are skyrocketing as a result. Sadly, while many children in Thai cities are getting heavier, those along the borders and in rural areas are experiencing severe malnutrition, with thousands not getting access to the food and nutrients they need.
Like Thailand, China has experienced a major shift in dietary habits and nutrition over the past few decades, beginning with the economic reforms of the 1970s. Some of these changes have been for the better, as rates of individuals being underweight have declined in many regions (from 22% to 12% over a five-year span) throughout the country. Yet China still struggles with nutrition on multiple fronts. In rural areas, malnutrition in children remains a major problem, with the provinces of Guangxi and Hainan having high levels of nutritional deficiencies in both children and adults. A 2008 study found that more than 135 million Chinese were facing some level of malnutrition. On the flipside, large cities like Shanghai and Beijing are battling with obesity, as fast and highly processed food becomes a bigger part of the average Chinese diet. In Beijing, the United Nations estimates that more than half the population is overweight and throughout China’s major cities diseases correlated with being overweight are on the rise.
Brazil is a nation of contrasts, at once beautiful and grotesque, densely urban and widely undeveloped, very rich and very, very poor. Nutrition in the South American nation is no exception. While rates of malnutrition in children have fallen to just 6% since a high of 18% in 1975, many children, especially in rural areas still suffer from a lack of nutrition and even stunting. Chronic energy deficiency is also a problem for many adults in Brazil, with the highest levels being found in Rio de Janeiro and rural areas. Major deficiencies of iron and vitamin A exist in many parts of the country as well, both in adults and children. While some 16 million people suffer from malnutrition in Brazil, others have access to far too much food, though not always healthy foods, causing obesity rates to increase at a startling pace throughout the country. The Brazilian Ministry of Health found that 46.6% of Brazilians were overweight and 13.9% were obese in a 2010 study. If rates rise at their current pace, Brazil could soon displace the U.S. as the most overweight nation in the world.
Rampant poverty and lack of resource availability in many of the country’s rural regions have caused major nutritional problems. While rates of malnutrition have fallen in Mexico, 1.8 million children are stunted, 800,000 are underweight, and 213,000 experience wasting. Vitamin A and iron deficiencies are widespread in rural areas and it is estimated that more than 50% of Mexico’s population lives in poverty. Yet the country’s biggest problem, nutritionally speaking, isn’t malnourishment but obesity. About 70% of Mexican adults are now overweight or obese, triple the number it was three decades ago. With fast food and soft drinks becoming dietary staples, many children are growing up overweight (a whopping 26.2%) but not especially well-nourished as many processed foods lack critical vitamins. This is creating a nutritional crisis of its own as the government promotes programs focused on healthy eating, exercise, and drinking water.
Kuwait is one of the nation’s richest countries, and it seems that Kuwaitis are putting some of that fortune into buying food, lots and lots of it. Going by average BMI, Kuwait is now the fattest nation in the world, due in part to new dietary patterns and highly sedentary lifestyles. Traditional foods are being replaced by energy-dense, high-fat ones, which has led to drastic increases in cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and cancer. The WHO estimates that 74% of Kuwaitis are overweight or obese, and even more women are, a whopping 80% having higher than recommended BMIs. Even worse, obesity rates are rising at an incredibly rapid pace in children, and diseases that typically only affect adults, like type-2 diabetes, are now common in children as young as 8.
- United States:
The United States takes the cake, literally and figuratively, when it comes to levels of obesity. An incredible two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, a number that has skyrocketed in the U.S. since the 1980s. Even more shocking, 3% of the population is severely obese, meaning they are 100 pounds or more overweight. Unlike many countries on this list, the problem for most Americans isn’t undernutrition but overnutrition, especially in American children and teens who are some of the fattest in the world. First Lady Michelle Obama has actively been working to promote healthy eating and exercise programs for kids, but there’s a long way to go. Currently, 32% of American children are overweight and numbers are growing every day, leaving many children battling with serious illnesses caused by obesity. What’s worse, rates for obesity nationwide are projected to grow substantially through 2030.