The Food We Eat

About half of the world's 6 billion people in rich and poor countries alike are poorly nourished, the World Health Organization estimates. These include 1.2 billion hungry people whose diets lack calories and another 1.2 billion people who eat too much. Overall, about 2 million people appear adequately fed but are debilitated or prone to illnesses because of a lack of essential vitamins and minerals.

Too Little . . .

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that roughly one in five people in developing countries is chronically hungry. U.N. specialists often use the proportion of underweight children as a proxy measurement for hunger. Here is a sampling of countries.

Percentage of underweight children:

Bangladesh: 56%

India: 53%

Ethiopia: 48%

Vietnam: 40%

Nigeria: 39%

Indonesia: 34%

Too Much . . .

A large proportion of humanity has shifted from a traditional diet dominated by grains and vegetables to one heavy in fats and sugars. Rising incomes, urban migration, more sedentary lifestyles and women working outside the home have pushed people toward prepared foods that are often low in nutritional value and high in calories. A frequent result is overeating, which now occurs even in developing countries.

Percentage of overweight adults:

U.S.: 55%

Russia: 54%

Britain: 51%

Germany: 50%

Colombia: 43%

Brazil: 31%

Studies have linked poor diets to half of all the world's diseases, including heart disease, cancer and adult-onset diabetes. Even if enough calories are taken in, people can lack micronutrients, such as iron, iodine and vitamins. U.N. agencies and private researchers have recommended strategies to improve the situation:

Action: Micronutrient fortification

Cost per person per year: 5 cents to 15 cents

Action: Micronutrient supplements

Cost per person per year: 20 cents to $1

Action: Mass media education

Cost per person per year: 20 cents to $2

Action: Other education programs, such as breast-feeding promotion

Cost per person per year: $5

Action: Community-based programs, such as home gardening and growth monitoring

Cost per person per year: $5 to $10

Action: Feeding programs

Cost per person per year: $70 to $100

Sources: Worldwatch Institute, WHO, UNICEF, Susan Horton: "The Economics of Nutritional Interventions"