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Hunger and Malnutrition

We've all seen news reports about people who are starving in countries plagued by war or drought. Unfortunately, many people in the world go hungry because they can't get enough to eat most of the time.

According to the UN World Food Programme, over 1 billion people in the world don't have enough to eat. That's more than the entire population of the United States, Canada, and the European Union. Every 6 seconds a child dies from malnutrition and related causes.

What Are Hunger and Malnutrition?

We all feel hungry at times. Hunger is the way the body signals that it needs to eat. Once we're able to eat enough food to satisfy our body's needs, we stop being hungry. Teens can feel hungry a lot because their rapidly growing and developing bodies demand extra food.

People with malnutrition lack the nutrients necessary for their bodies to grow and stay healthy. Someone can be malnourished for a long or short period of time, and the condition may be mild or severe. Malnutrition can affect someone's physical and mental health. People who are suffering from malnutrition are more likely to get sick; in very severe cases, they may even die from its effects.

Kids who are chronically malnourished don't grow as tall as they should (a condition referred to as stunted growth) and are underweight as well. (People also can become underweight because they have an illness, and some are underweight because of their genes.)

What Causes Hunger and Malnutrition?

People suffer from hunger because they don't get enough food, and not getting enough food over the long term can lead to malnutrition. But someone can become malnourished for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger.

People who have plenty to eat may still be malnourished if they don't eat food that provides the right nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

Some people become malnourished because they have a disease or condition that prevents them from digesting or absorbing their food properly. For example, someone with celiac disease has intestinal problems that are triggered by a protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley. Celiac disease can interfere with the intestine's ability to absorb nutrients, which may result in nutritional deficiencies.

People with cystic fibrosis have trouble absorbing nutrients because the disease affects the pancreas, an organ that normally produces chemical substances called enzymes that are necessary for digesting food.

If you don't get enough of one specific nutrient, that's a nutritional deficiency, a form of malnutrition (although it doesn't mean you will necessarily become seriously ill). The most common form of malnutrition in the world is iron deficiency, which can lead to anemia. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as many as 2 billion people worldwide don't have enough iron in their diets. Iron comes from foods like red meat, egg yolks, and fortified flour, bread, and cereals.

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