The right to the highest attainable health through healthy and affordable diets

20 December 2018 | Policy

Louise Meincke

Louise Meincke is Head of Policy & Public Affairs at World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) International and a human rights advocate. She explains the double burden of malnutrition and how to tackle it.

Globally, about one in three people is affected by some form of malnutrition. However, when we talk about malnutrition, most people think of undernutrition such as stunting, wasting and micronutrient deficiencies. But in recent years there has been an emergence, now turned epidemic, of overnutrition. Better known as overweight and obesity, this form of malnutrition increases the risk of 12 different types of cancer. This means that we are now faced with a ‘double burden’ of malnutrition – under- and overnutrition – both of which require urgent policy action. The right to the highest attainable health is a fundamental human right, the basis of which is access to healthy and affordable food, often unattainable by many people. 

The Sustainable Development Goals, Target 2.2 is to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030, however, there are a number of barriers to implementing effective policy actions (including so called ‘double-duty’ actions to prevent and control the double burden of malnutrition) to achieve this target. These include a lack of political will and understanding of double-duty actions, and industry push-back and interference. You can read more about barriers to implementing effective food policies in our series of policy reports, Building Momentum, the first of which looks at sugar-sweetened beverages taxes.

Malnutrition on a global scale

For the last five years, a report has been published by a multi-stakeholder initiative consisting of government, donor organisations, civil society, multilateral organisations and the business sector. This Global Nutrition Report (GNR) provides an overview of the world’s nutrition status – globally, regionally and by country – and current efforts to improve it. 

The launch of this year’s GNR, on 29 November 2018, highlighted that all countries are affected by some form of malnutrition, and while we have seen some progress in areas, it is happening far too slowly and inconsistently. Levels of malnutrition are still unacceptably high, yet we know more now than ever before about what policies work, so the fundamental question that needs asking is: what is holding us back? The report outlines that there are five critical steps needed to speed up progress on tackling the double burden of malnutrition: 

1. Break down silos between malnutrition – both undernutrition and overweight and obesity affect societies, families and individuals. Comprehensive action is needed.  

2. Prioritise and invest in the data needed and capacity to use it – data collection and analysis is needed to help inform the nutrition response to malnutrition.

3. Scale up financing for nutrition – diversify and innovate new funding streams to make progress.

4. Galvanise action on healthy diets – engage all countries to address this universal problem. No country can solve malnutrition alone. 

5. Make and deliver better commitments to end malnutrition in all its forms – an ambitious, transformative approach will be required to meet global nutrition targets.

At WCRF International, we provide governments with guidance on the types of food policies that need to be implemented as part of a comprehensive package to reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity – as healthy diets are a key component to tackling the double burden of malnutrition. This is summarised in our NOURISHING framework, which is accompanied by an online database of implemented policy actions by countries all over the world. 

Everyone plays a role

The GNR was launched at events all over the world, from Bangkok to London. I attended the London launch along with Fiona Sing, WCRF’s Policy & Public Affairs Manager, and Susannah Brown and Isobel Bandurek from our science team. The cross-departmental attendance of WCRF reflects the nature of the response needed – a whole-of-society and whole-of-government approach. This event was hugely inspiring. It reminded us that there are so many people who want to, and can, do something to end the double burden of malnutrition. As Professor Corinna Hawkes (Co-Chair of the report) highlighted, if everyone takes responsibility, then we will begin to see a bigger change. If people feel they can do something, they probably will. This is a mindset issue. 

Another key point made at this event was from Johanna Ralston, CEO of the World Obesity Federation, who said that young people are crucial advocates for nutrition. Our collaborative project funded by the European Commission, called CO-CREATE, has young people centrally involved, designing policies and advocating for action they believe will help prevent overweight and obesity in people their age.

With the International Symposium on Understanding the Double Burden of Malnutrition for Effective Interventions in Vienna also just having taken place, there is an obvious appetite to understand, and act on, the double burden of malnutrition. 

Malnutrition: there should be no future for it

The 2018 GNR has shone a light on the effects and alarming rates of malnutrition in all its forms around the world. But we now need to do more. We need to spur society into action, which must be led by governments, and supported by civil society and researchers, to end the double burden of malnutrition once and for all. Only then will the human right to the highest attainable standard of health become a reality. 

  • Explore our NOURISHING database to find implemented food polices that promote healthy diets and reduce overweight and obesity.
Louise Meincke | 20 December 2018