A malnourished person finds that their body has difficulty doing normal things such as growing and resisting disease. Physical work becomes problematic and even learning abilities can be diminished. For women, pregnancy becomes risky and they cannot be sure of producing nourishing breast milk.

When a person is not getting enough food or not getting the right sort of food, malnutrition is just around the corner. Even if people get enough to eat, they will become malnourished if the food they eat does not provide the proper amounts of micronutrients - vitamins and minerals - to meet daily nutritional requirements.

Disease and malnutrition are closely linked. Sometimes disease is the result of malnutrition, sometimes it is a contributing cause. In fact, malnutrition is the largest single contributor to disease in the world, according to the UN's Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN).

Malnutrition at an early age leads to reduced physical and mental development during childhood. Stunting, for example, affects more than 147 million pre-schoolers in developing countries, according to SCN's World Nutrition Situation 5th report. Iodine deficiency, the same report shows, is the world's greatest single cause of mental retardation and brain damage.

Undernutrition affects school performance and studies have shown it often leads to a lower income as an adult. It also causes women to give birth to low birth-weight babies.

Window of opportunity

The first two years of life are a critical “window of opportunity”. In this period it is possible to prevent the largely irreversible damage that follows early childhood undernutrition. WFP's operations routinely focus on the earliest phase of life, i.e. from conception (-9 months) to 24 months of age. We try to ensure under-twos receive the vitamins and minerals they need.

There are two sides to eliminating malnutrition:

  1. sustaining the quality and quantity of food a person eats; and
  2. ensuring adequate health care and a healthy environment.

WFP's role in fighting malnutrition is to give malnourished people the food and nutrients they need , but also to prevent it, by acting where there is the threat of malnutrition.