Three Hunger Words You Probably Misuse and Don’t Understand

Focus-on-Food (1)

We hear the term food security and wonder, ”Is this about keeping children safe? Or setting security guards around food supplies?” We’re not exactly sure what the difference is between a hungry child and one who is malnourished (though one does seem more severe).

Think about the time you last said that you “loved” a thing in your house like a new mixer or a garage door opener. Or, when you voiced a desire to “collapse” after work when you were just extra tired. Or even when you cried and cried about something that really wasn’t worth tears.

In American culture, we have a tendency to exaggerate how we feel.  We love strong and dramatic metaphors. We use words out of context all the time.

We say our ice cream is awesome and so are our mothers. We say we want to kill someone when we’re just slightly annoyed.  We say we’re starving because we didn’t eat lunch until 3 pm.

We’re all guilty of such contextual language errors.

When we talk about childhood hunger, many of us are  just as guilty of misusing words, or we’re just plain confused. We hear the term food security and wonder, ”Is this about keeping children safe? Or setting security guards around food supplies?” We’re not exactly sure what the difference is between a hungry child and one who is malnourished (though one does seem more severe), or between children who are malnourished and children who are stunted. And if they’re different, are those differences significant?

Feed the Children wants to defeat childhood hunger with advocates like you.  To do this, we’re taking some time to define some of these key terms so we can understand each other better and be better advocates.

Three Hunger Words infographic: malnourished, stunting, hunger
Copyright Feed the Children 2014

Malnutrition

When we think of this word, we often see visions of big bellies and children nearing death. But the term malnourished has a much broader definition.

According to UNICEF’s glossary of terms, a child suffers from “malnutrition” (or is “malnourished”) if his or her diet does not provide enough essential nutrients to grow and remain healthy or if they are unable to fully utilize the food they eat due to illness. (This is also called “undernutrition.”) We can also say a child is malnourished if the child becomes obese from consuming more calories than his or her body can use.

Malnutrition is the underlying cause of about 45 percent of all deaths among children under five in the countries where we work.

Weakened by malnutrition, these children have lower resistance to diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria.  Children who are malnourished are much more likely to die from these diseases than children who are not.

Stunting

Most people think stunting is a word that refers to the size or height of a child. Just like malnourished, stunting is a term that covers much more than size.

UNICEF also provides us some guidance here when they say that stunting (or “chronic malnutrition”) can happen to a child if she does not consume enough essential nutrients over a long period of time. Stunting can start before a baby is even born if his/her mother doesn’t eat enough during her pregnancy. It can also start in the first months of life if the mother doesn’t eat well enough while breastfeeding or can’t feed the baby well enough other ways.

If a baby is malnourished for a long period of time, it doesn’t just stunt her physical growth. It can slow down her brain’s development, too. This makes it harder to learn and do well in school later on, and even can make it harder to earn a living as an adult.

Most tragic of all, if the child can’t get sufficient nutrition to stop and reverse the effects of stunting by the time he reaches the age of five, it’s too late. After age five, most of this damage to the child’s body and brain is permanent.

This is why we are focusing more and more on providing good nutrition for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. The first 1000 days of a child’s life (from conception to the child’s second birthday) are critical in order for her to grow and thrive throughout her life.

In the countries where we work, between 20% and 45% of children under five are stunted (chronically malnourished). For this reason, Feed the Children, along with the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development, host country governments and the international NGO community, are working together to fight stunting. It’s the number one priority for our international food and nutrition work.

Hunger

The word “hunger” can mean different things to different people. We usually think of the feeling we get in the pit of our stomach, a craving, maybe a growl or pain, or when it’s worst, a feeling of lightheadedness.

At Feed the Children, we call a child “hungry” if she can’t get the food she needs, whether that happens for a few days every now and then, once a week, or every day. Children grow so fast that if they have to go without enough of the right kinds of food even just for a day or two, it can slow down their growth and their learning.

So if a child in New Orleans fills up on junk food because fresh veggies are sold too far away from her home, she¹s still “hungry” (even if her tummy doesn’t rumble) because she is not getting enough of the right kinds of food.

Or if a child in Malawi is fed only corn porridge every day to fill up his stomach, he’s still “hungry” because he won’t be able to grow right without the vitamins and minerals he should be getting from vegetables and milk.

That’s why we want to create a world where no child goes to bed hungry. Hunger means the body isn’t getting something it really needs, and when children are hungry, it’s a big deal.

What hunger words confuse you?

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