Eating and ill health

Undernutrition, starvation and famine still prevails in many countries. Threequarters of the people in the world rely on locally produced cereal staples to supply most of their dietary energy. In any country where more than twothirds of the dietary energy comes from cereals one can expect malnutrition to be prevalent, because cereals cannot supply all the necessary nutrients. Poverty prevents supplementation with small amounts of additional foods which would correct this imbalance.

Diseases from undernutrition

A common problem in children is proteinenergy malnutrition which shows itself in two ways. Kwashiorkor is tissue wasting accompanied by accumulation of water under the skin (oedema), which gives the child a podgy appearance. Marasmus leads to extreme thinness, pot belly and loss of hair. Different environmental conditions can cause one or other of these diseases.

Lack of vitamin A is probably the most widespread vitamin deficiency which causes blindness and disease. It is due to the shortage of fat, which helps the vitamin to be absorbed, vegetables and animal foods. Adults and breastfed infants have the most resistance to malnutrition but weaning and young children are particularly vulnerable, because of their high requirements of energy and nutrients.

Trying to solve the problem

Two decades ago there was a panic about world protein shortages and a move to introduce more high protein food to developing countries. However it is now recognized that fulfilling protein requirements without sufficient energy is of no benefit, and priority ought to be given to supplying more food of any kind. It is of secondary importance to supply food of high quality. Introducing sources of fat can often be more valuable than protein as the existing dietary protein is spared, the energy density of the diet is increased, and so is palatability.

Solutions to world food problems will only be found when coordinated schemes to relieve poverty and redistribute wealth achieved when agriculture, food trade, education and public health can be effectively organised.

Our own malnutrition

The term malnutrition has a connotation of undernutrition but the form of malnutrition that affects the Western world is overnutrition. Between onethird and onehalf of the adult population in Britain is overweight. The insurance companies were the first people to look closely at the relationship between overweight and mortality. They found that overweight was strongly connected with early death and also that loading the body with excess weight led to a higher incidence of disorders of the heart and circulation, bones, joints, ligaments, respiratory system and hormone complications like diabetes. They classified people into large, medium and small frame which gives an indication of stature and bone size. Using their statistical records, they calculated a series of ideal or desirable weights which represent a minimum risk to health.