While nutritional status has improved worldwide over the past fifty years, new nutrition-related problems have also emerged. In an article recently published in The Journal of Nutrition, Eileen Kennedy DSc, RD, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, offers an updated view of global nutrition.
She describes how global demographic, epidemiological, and nutritional transitions have led to a unique situation in which food insecurity (uncertain or scarce access to safe and healthy food) exists side by side with problems of obesity and chronic nutrition-related diseases, even in the same household. Kennedy, former acting undersecretary at the United States Department of Agriculture, calls for new research to address this emerging and complex new problem.
"A global nutrition transition has and is occurring on a continuum. While problems of under-consumption and poor nutritional status continue to exist, increasingly problems of diet/chronic diseases are emerging as significant public health issues globally," says Kennedy. A demographic shift has resulted in increased life expectancy in many countries, and in some countries, this means an older population. Closely tied with this change in age structure is an epidemiological shift which has decreased communicable diseases and increased chronic diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, she reports.
"An increase in availability of more high-fat and sugar-laden foods has led to a surge of nutrition-related chronic diseases around the world. At the same time that diets have changed, physical activity has decreased. The highest rates of overweight and obesity are now often found in low-income groups. Many populations have been left in the midst of an obesity crisis that exists with food insecurity and under-nutrition," Kennedy summarizes. "Chronic diseases can no longer be labeled as 'diseases of affluence.' Unfortunately, the message that the global nutrition profile is changing hasn't reached policy makers, and they need to be aware that it is occurring."
In a separate article published in the May 2005 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Kennedy and co-author Linda Meyers, PhD, Director of the Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, note that large parts of the developing world are plagued with micronutrient deficiencies. "Deficiencies of micronutrients, such as iron, iodine, zinc and vitamin A, contribute to 'hidden hunger' and while the statistics on micronutrient status for women in developing countries are scarce," she says, "it is clear that a large percentage of women from developing countries suffer negative health and nutrition consequences."
The real challenge, Kennedy says, will be to identify new ways of dealing with the new nutrition realities of diet-related chronic diseases while also addressing under-nutrition, food insecurity and hunger. Investment in applied nutrition research will be essential in creating and promoting healthy lifestyle initiatives.