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What is hunger?

For most people in developed countries, being hungry is the uncomfortable feeling you get if you skip lunch. But it’s very different if you’re one of the hundreds of millions who don’t get enough to eat every single day. Being malnourished means you don’t have the strength or energy to do even the simplest tasks. Hunger makes you weak, tired and unable to concentrate. Work or study of any kind is exhausting. All you can think about is when you are going to eat.

This uncertainty about where the next meal will come from is called ‘food insecurity’. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food insecurity as: A situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.

For people across the world, food insecurity and hunger last all day, every day, year in, year out. They have insufficient food to be active and healthy and they don’t get all the vitamins and minerals the body needs to function well. This leads to illness and temporary or permanent damage to their health.

On average, a person needs about 1800 kcal per day as a minimum energy intake. If you don’t get that you are likely to be suffering from chronic hunger and the human body will start to feed on itself: fat, muscle tissue and finally the organs. Death is inevitable although many starving people actually die from hunger-related diseases such as tuberculosis, dysentery or typhoid which a weak body is unable to fight. Young children and old people are particularly vulnerable.

You could think of the human body as being like a car. Look after it and it will serve you well. To run smoothly a car needs to be maintained and when things go wrong you need to fix it. But even if parts of the car stop working, it will continue to run, for a time and appear to be working normally. If the wipers pack up, the lights are broken, the exhaust is cracked, the brakes worn and the clutch faulty, the car will still keep moving, just about. But eventually these accumulating problems become so great the car will stop. The human body is like this. A person who is chronically hungry can continue to function at a basic level but eventually malnourishment takes its toll, leading to critical illness and premature death.

Causes of Hunger

Victims of the worst floods to hit Pakistan in several years walk through water-filled streets in the northwestern city of Nowshera.

Victims of the worst floods to hit Pakistan in several years walk through water-filled streets in the northwestern city of Nowshera.

Among the key causes of hunger are natural disasters, conflict, poverty, poor agricultural infrastructure and over-exploitation of the environment. Recently, financial and economic crises, and the drastic increase in food prices in 2008 have pushed even more people into hunger.

Conversely, the news isn’t all bad – although we have had an absolute increase in the number of hungry in the world, huge progress has been made since the 1970s, when around 30% of the world’s population were undernourished.

But can we afford to be complacent? The answer is a resounding “NO!”

Hunger is a solvable problem, and this generation has a real possibility of seeing it end – for good. In order for this to happen, individuals around the world need to become actors in the fight against hunger.

But hunger is more than just a lack of food – what about “Hidden Hunger”?

As well as the obvious sort of hunger resulting from an empty stomach, there is also the hidden hunger of micronutrient deficiencies which make people susceptible to infectious diseases, impair physical and mental development, reduce their labour productivity and increase the risk of premature death. The right food at the right time means more than just filling bellies. Food also has to be nutritious.

Nutrition in 2 minutes (video)