The Science of Hunger: What 1 Billion People Feel

Despite a record level of people suffering from hunger, food aid is at a 20-year low due to the poor global economy, United Nations officials said today. The result: More than 1 billion people across the world will face hunger this year.

"For the world's most vulnerable, the perfect storm is hitting with a vengeance," said U.N. World Food Program (WFP) Executive Director Josette Sheeran. So far this year, the agency has received less than half of the $6.7 billion it needs to feed 108 million people in 74 countries, Sheeran said.

While we're all familiar with the stomach grumblings and the pangs that come with a skipped or late meal, most people, especially in the developed world, know little about the more critical problems that prolonged hunger can cause.

What hunger does

For people who face chronic hunger, the effects can be measured in different ways, including under-nourishment and malnutrition.

Under-nourishment occurs when people don't take in enough calories to provide them with the energy just to meet their minimum physiological needs. Malnutrition is more of a measure of what people eat, versus how much. Malnourishment occurs when people don't get the levels of protein, micronutrients (such as vitamins) or other critical components in their food, according to the WFP.

Malnutrition is measured by looking at physical measurements of the body, such as height and weight at a given age.

Malnutrition can have serious effects on the body:

  • Chronic malnutrition can stunt the growth of children.
  • It can also cause children to be underweight for their age.
  • An acute case can cause wasting, or severe weight loss.
  • It can cause deficiency in key vitamins and minerals, such as anemia, or iron deficiency.
  • The weight problems and deficiencies can increase susceptibility to disease.

Malnutrition can become a secondary issue when the body can't take up the nutrients in food because of diarrhea or other illnesses.

Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals exact their own toll on the human body:

  • Iron deficiency, the most common form of malnutrition, affects billions worldwide. It can impede brain development.
  • Vitamin A deficiency affects 140 million pre-school children in 118 countries. It is the leading cause of child blindness and can make people more susceptible to diseases. It kills one million infants a year, according to UNICEF.
  • Iodine deficiency affects 780 million people worldwide. Babies born to iodine-deficient mothers can have mental impairments.
  • Zinc deficiency results in about 800,000 child deaths a year. It weakens the immune systems of young children.

Who is hungry

While enough food exists to feed the world's entire population, the WFP estimates that the number of hungry in the world tops 1 billion, or about one in every six people — more than the populations of the United States, Canada and the European Union combined.

"We urgently need an additional $3 billion to meet those needs, which is less than 0.01 per cent of what was put on the table to stabilize the world financially," Sheeran said.

While disasters, such as floods or droughts, might cause temporary cases of hunger in populations, emergencies only account for about 8 percent of the world's hungry. Those who are most likely to face severe hunger are women, children and those living in rural communities, the WFP says.

Of the total amount of hungry people in the world, half are in Asia and the Pacific and one quarter are in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the WFP. Sixty-five percent live in just six countries: India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia.

The statistics (from the WFP) on those facing the results of hunger can be stark:

  • An estimated 146 million children in developing countries are underweight.
  • Every six seconds a child dies because of hunger and related causes.
  • More than 60 percent of chronically hungry people are women.

Trends in hunger

While aid programs made inroads in combating hunger at the end of the 20th century, rising food prices have been negating those efforts, causing the number of hungry to rise again everywhere except in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The rising cost of food caused the number of hungry to jump by 75 million people in 2007 and 40 million people in 2008.

War, climate change, unshakeable poverty, poor farming practices, and over-exploitation of farming resources also contribute to the persistence of hunger, experts say.

Ways to prevent malnutrition include: improvement of water supplies, sanitation and hygiene; health education; improved access to healthy food for the poor; and insurance that industrialization and agricultural advancements don't contribute to the problem, according to the World Health Organization.

Live Science Staff
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