The Double Burden of Malnutrition in Countries Passing through the Economic Transition

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Undernutrition in both its acute and chronic forms (wasting and stunting) is strongly inversely correlated with the wealth of nations. Consequently, as many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) achieve economic advancement and pass through the so-called “nutrition transition,” their rates of undernutrition decline. Many countries successfully achieved the Millennium Development Goal of halving undernutrition and whole continents have been transformed in recent decades. The exception is Africa where the slower rates of decline in the prevalence of undernutrition has been overtaken by population growth so that the absolute number of stunted children is rising. In many regions, economic transition is causing a rapid increase in the number of overweight and obese people. The rapidity of this rise is such that many nations bear the simultaneous burdens of under- and overnutrition; termed the “double burden” of malnutrition. This double burden, accompanied as it is by the unfinished agenda of high levels of infectious diseases, is crippling the health systems of many LMICs and thus requires urgent attention. Although the prognosis looks threatening for many poor countries, they have the advantage of being able to learn from the mistakes made by other nations that have passed through the transition before them. Concerted action across many arms of government would achieve huge future dividends in health and wealth for any nations that can grasp the challenge.

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