Chronic Hunger (linked to Food Security)


The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations defines chronic hunger as undernourishment caused by not ingesting enough energy to lead a normal, active life.

The definition of hunger has been a subject of debate, especially as it is linked to food security. At the heart of the debate is a disagreement among scholars and practitioners on whether hunger is physiological or social. As a result, there are several definitions in use. However, the most commonly cited definition of hunger comes from the 1990 Life Sciences Research Organization Report on Nutritional Assessment (Anderson 1990:1598):

  1. Physiological Hunger: the un-easy or painful sensation caused by a lack of food
  2. Resource-constrained Hunger: the recurrent and involuntary lack of access to food [1]

In the LSRO Report, researchers linked hunger to food security by citing hunger (lacking access to food) and malnutrition as potential consequences of food insecurity[2] . However, the distinction of hunger as "physiological" or "resource-constrained" ignores its complex social dimensions. Instead, critics argue, hunger should be defined as a biosocial condition that extends beyond a physiological meaning [3] .

Many definitions of hunger only refer to an inadequate caloric intake. According to the FAO this is the case for the rural and urban poor, and victims of catastrophes, who are most at risk of undernourishment. This causes retarded growth, low birth-weight, infant and child mortality, and lowered immune capabilities.However, research now suggests that in urban areas where fast and processed foods are readily available, people may ingest an adequate or excess number of calories on a daily basis, but still suffer from hunger.

For example, Elizabeth Adams et al., Christine Olsen, William H. Dietz, and Richard Nisbett have contributed to the body of work linking hunger and obesity among low income Americans. According to William H. Dietz,

“At least two possibilities could explain the association of hunger and obesity in the same patient. In this family [referring to a specific case study], the increased fat content of food eaten to prevent hunger at times when the family lacked the money to buy food represents the most likely reason for the association of obesity and hunger. An alternative possibility is that obesity may represent an adaptive response to episodic food insufficiency.” (1995)
These scholars agree that additional empirical support for this association is needed.

Health Impact

Chronic Hunger is a global health issue, affecting many of the world’s populations. The United Nations has committed to halving the number of people affected by chronic hunger by 2015 as one of their millennium development goals. In 2010, the UN reported the following populations numbers by geographic region:
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: 239 million
  • Asia and the Pacific: 578 million
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: 53 million
  • Near East and North Africa: 37 million
  • Developed countries: 19 million
According to their Millennium Development Goals report, hunger spiked in 2009 due to the global financial and food crisis, increasing the number of undernourished people across the globe. Increases in consumer food prices, including many staple foods such as rice and other grains, combined with increased unemployment and diminished household incomes have been cited as significant contributing factors to this increase in global hunger.

*The FAO Food Price Index is a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities. It consists of the average of five commodity group price indices (representing 55 quotations), weighted with the average export shares of each of the groups for 2002-2004.


nutrition.png Chronic hunger most often results in malnutrition, under nutrition, and sometimes starvation. People who are chronically hungry often do not ingest an adequate number of calories, or nutrients. They are typically underweight or wasted due in large part to the combination of food insecurity, inadequate water supplies, and inadequate sanitation. According to the UN’s Millennium Development goals report, under nutrition is widely prevalent in children under five and contributes to immune deficiencies, stunted growth and development, and mortality.

The authors of this report claim that cost-effective interventions at key developmental stages in a child’s growth could significantly reduce undernutrition. Among these interventions are: exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, and adequate feeding and micronutrient supplementation between six and 24 months old.

Growth and Development

Growth and Development studies highlight the harmful impacts of chronic hunger and malnutrition on the body over the human life span. The results of these studies suggest that malnutrition due to chronic hunger in early childhood or adolescence causes decreased stature throughout the live of an individual. When hunger is chronic, the likelihood that catch-up growth will occur, allowing and individual to reach his/her genetic potential (optimal height when no environmental insult is present), is low.

Malnutrition due to chronic hunger affects height and weight velocity in adolescence, especially at the onset of puberty when malnutrition causes growth retardation. In both height and weight, individuals who are underweight grow at a slower rate than those who are not and the takeoff age for growth in both height and weight occurs much later among underweight individuals. The lower average age of increased height and weight velocity supports the idea that individuals who are undernourished reach puberty later than those who are not. This means that in females, the average age of menarche will be later.

Growth and Development studies also help link the physiological and social aspects of hunger, the lack of which is critiqued by many scholars. The biosocial approach is important in the study of growth and development because patterns of growth are not genetic, though there is evidence to suggest adult stature (unaffected by environmental impact) likely has genetic origins. In reality, growth is affected by the constant interaction between one’s genes and one’s environment. Thus, proximate environmental insults such as chronic hunger and malnutrition stemming from distolate factors like food insecurity and poverty significantly impact human growth and development rates.


Malnutrition can be a product of both chronic hunger and illnesses related to chronic hunger that prevent children from retaining nutrients. The more malnourished the child, the more susceptible he or she will be to illnesses like diarrhea, malaria, respiratory infections, and measles. A vicious cycle, these diseases promote the continuation of malnutrition in populations. According to the Millenium Development Goals report, “ensuring proper nutrition is a critical aspect of prevention, since malnutrition increases the risk of death.”

Medical Anthropology Research

While eating and food (ritual and sharing of) have always interested anthropologists, impacts of and adaptations to a lack of food appears to have been more interesting. According to Sidney Mintz, the largest body of work on anthropology and food is in the area of hunger and food insecurity (2002:99). Anthropologists involved in hunger research spans many anthropological sub-fields. Anthropologists like Noel Cameron study hunger and malnutrition in the context of childhood growth and development. Anthropologists like Paul Farmer recognize chronic hunger and famine as major barriers to medical treatment in areas where poverty, limited access to resources, and political and social injustice combine with chronic illnesses to exacerbate suffering. Much of the anthropological focus on hunger examines social and political backgrounds behind food insecurity, the merrits of programs meant to alleviate hunger, as well as the impacts of climate change and agriculture. Other research explores interhousehold resource allocation, gender inequalities, the effects of the Green Revolution, loss of genetic diversity, and agricultural knowledge and meanings in the context of hunger. Finally, anthropologists interested in hunger may investigate the impact of economic and health interventions meant to relieve famine. This research in particular has an important applied component in terms of program evaluation and development.

Online Resources

LISTEN: NPR:Food Insecurity, Hunger, and Children's Health
LISTEN: NPR: More Americans Face Hunger

For Full Video: SEE PBS

Works Cited

  • Adams, E.J. Grummer-Strawn, L. and Chavez, G. (2003). Food Insecurity Is Associated with Increased Risk of Obesity in California Women. Nutrition 133(4):1070-1074.
  • Dietz, W.H (1995) Does Hunger Cause Obesity. Pediatrics 95(5):766-767.
  • Eisinger, P. (1996). Toward a National Hunger Count. Social Science Review 70(2):214-234.
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2003) Food Security: Concepts and Measurement. In Trade Reforms and Food Security: Conceptualizing Linkages. Pp. 25-32. Rome.
  • Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Trade and Markets Division. (2010) Food Outlook: Global Market Analysis November, 2010. accessed April 2, 2010
  • Holben, David H. (2002). An Overview of Food Security and its Measurement. Nutrition Today 37(4):156-216
  • Millennium Development Goals Report (2010). accessed April 2, 2010
  • Nisbett, Richard E. (1972). Hunger, obesity, and the ventromedial hypothalamus. Psychological Review 79(6):433-453
  • Olson, C. M. (1999). Nutrition Health Outcomes Associated with Food Insecurity and Hunger. Nutrition 129(2):521-521.


  1. ^ Anderson, S. E. (1990). Core Indicators of Nutritional Status for Difficult-to-Sample Populations. Journal of Nutrition 120, 1559-1599.
  2. ^ Holben, David H. (2002). An Overview of Food Security and its Measurement. Nutrition Today 37(4):156-216
  3. ^ Radimer, K. L. (2002). Measurement of household food security in the USA and other industrialised countries. Public Health Nutrition 5(Supplement 6a):859-864.