Hunger and Undernourishment

OWID presents work from many different people and organizations. When citing this entry, please also cite the original data source. This entry can be cited as:

Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie (2017) – ‘Hunger and Undernourishment’. Published online at Retrieved from: [Online Resource]

# Empirical View

# Undernourishment over time, by world region

The prevalence of undernourishment, as a share of the population, is the main hunger indicator used by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

It measures the share of the population that consumes an amount of calories that is insufficient to cover the energy requirement for an active and healthy life (as defined by the minimum dietary energy requirement).

Shown in this visualisation is the prevalence aggregated by world region. The chart focusses on the regions and countries with the highest share of undernourished people.
Developed countries, as defined by the FAO, are not included in these regional estimates of the FAO since they estimate the share of undernourished people in developed countries to be below 5%. This means for example that Japan is not included in the estimate for ‘Eastern Asia’.
Additionally not included in this chart are those world regions in which the prevalence is below 5% during the period are also not included.

# World map of the prevalence of undernourishment

# Depth of the food deficit

# Undernourishment of children

# Stunting

# Change of Childrens’ Undernourishment in Different World Regions since 1990

Malnutrition prevalence as weight for age (% of children under age 5) by world region, 1990-2011 – World Development Indicators (2013)1

Malnutrition prevalence (1990-2011), by World Regions – World Development Indicators (2013)0

Percentage of children aged <5 years underweight in total children <5 population in selected countries, 1990-20112

Full screen view Download Data
World map of child malnutrition (underweight children) – SEDAC (NASA)3

World Map of Child Malnutrition (Underweight Children) by Subnational Administrative Level – CIESIN at SEDAC (NASA)0

# What do we know about the decline of undernourishment in the developing world over the long run?

Although it would be vital for our understanding of global development we are lacking historical data on hunger and malnourishment. The history of famines as the most extreme episodes of hunger gives some indication and is dealt with in a separate entry on Our World in Data.

Our most concrete and well-established sources of data on hunger and undernourishment begin in 1990. This is strongly related to the fact that our global progress indicators on hunger reduction are tracked based on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the subsequent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have a baseline year of 1990. During this period, the standard FAO methodology for the estimation of malnourishment has been revised for improved accuracy (for the correction see below). To our best knowledge, estimates of prevalence prior to 1990 have not been updated and published based on the revised methodology.

However, to provide some sense of how malnutrition has changed over a longer timeframe, we have extended the latest data on undernourishment backwards with FAO estimates, using previous methodologies, for 1970 and 1980. This series that shows the prevalence of undernourishment (in %) in developing countries is shown in the chart below.

The FAO maintains a consistent definition for ‘developing countries’.4

Data for 1970 and 1980 has been sourced from two FAO State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) reports, for 2006 and 2010. Estimates of the prevalence of undernourishment differ between these two reports. The 2006 report estimates a prevalence of 37 percent in 1970, reducing to 28 percent in 1980;5 the 2010 report instead estimates a reduction from 32.5 percent to 25 percent, respectively.6 This reflects a considerable uncertainty of these estimates and this aspect has to be taken into account as indicated in the subtitle of this chart.

Given the uncertainty in these earlier estimates, what can we say about how undernourishment has changed through time? Whilst specific figures for the level of undernourishment differ between sources, they do agree on the direction of change. Both sources report a consistent downward trend, with similar rates of reduction. The share of undernourished people in the developing world has been declining over this longer timeframe, but there are no confident figures on how many people were undernourished at each point in time.

This gives us estimated trends dating back to 1970 for undernourishment in developing countries; but do we have even earlier estimates? FAO figures of undernourishment date back to 1945, the year of its first international summit. The first edition of its ‘State of Food and Agriculture’ report was published in 1947 and estimated the prevalence of undernourishment in 1945 to be 50 percent.7 This does give us some useful indication of the scale of malnutrition and how this has changed through time, however, we have not included this estimate in our current series for two key reasons.

Firstly, this figure is reported for the total global population, rather than specifically addressing prevalence in developing countries.8 In early editions, figures were not defined or categorised based on income level, meaning the countries included in 1945 estimates are not the same as boundaries defined in our 1970-2015 series.

Secondly, at its initiation in 1945, the FAO had only 34 member governments involved in its food security and agriculture programme.9 The small number of UN members involved in early FAO programmes may increase levels of uncertainty surrounding data collection and estimation. Poor geographical coverage of data collection on undernourishment is likely to make 1945 estimates less reliable. By 1961, the number of member countries had increased to more than 100. By the mid-1970s, the FAO’s World Committee for Food Security had 136 members. Today, the FAO has 194 member states.10

# Historical perspective

The following map shows the hunger levels in Europe at the end of World War I

Hunger map of Europe, May 1919 – The New York Times11

Hunger Map of Europe (December 1918) – The New York Times0

# Correlates, Determinants & Consequences

Correlation matrix of key food security indicators in all developing regions – FAO (2013)12

Correlation matrix of key food security indicators, all developing regions – FAO (2013)0


# Correlation of Poverty and Undernourishment

Poverty vs. prevalence of undernourishment – FAO (2013)13

FAO 2013 Poverty vs undernourishment

Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1 target achievement trajectories and actual progress on key indicators (poverty, undernourishment, underweight) for all developing regions, since 1990 – FAO (2013)14

FAO 2013 MDG progress and trajectories

# Undernourishment by Family Income and Parents Education

Stunting among children under 5 years of age by household wealth quintile in Mozambique, 1999-2003 – WHO (2007)15

Stunting among children under 5 years of age, by household wealth quintile, Mozambique, 1999–2003 – WHO (2007)

Severe stunting among children under 3 by mother’s level of education for selected countries, most recent year – UNESCO (2009)16

Severe stunting among children under 3 by mother’s level of education, selected countries, most recent year – UNESCO (2009)0


# Data Quality & Definition

# Prevalence of stunting and undernourishment

# Definitions of measures of hunger and undernourishment

Here I present the definitions used by the FAO.17 I have specified when I have used a different definition above.

  • Malnutrition is defined as an ‘abnormal physiological condition caused by inadequate, unbalanced or excessive consumption of macronutrients and/or micronutrients. Malnutrition includes undernutrition and overnutrition
    as well as micronutrient deficiencies.’

    • Overnourishment is defined as ‘food intake that is continuously in excess of dietary energy requirements’.
    • Undernourishment is ‘a state, lasting for at least one year, of inability to acquire enough food, defined as a level of food intake insufficient to meet dietary energy requirements’.

In the FAO report ‘hunger’ is synonymous with ‘chronic undernourishment’.

Consequences of Undernourishment

The consequence of undernourishment is called Undernutrition. And the FAO names four outcomes of undernourishment, and/or poor absorption and/or poor biological use of nutrients consumed as a result of repeated infectious disease.

These are:

  • Being underweight for one’s age.
    • Underweight is defined as ‘low weight for age in children, and BMI of less than 18.5 in adults’.18
  • For children, two consequences of undernourishment are:
    • being ‘too short for one’s age’ which is called stunting,
    • being ‘dangerously thin for one’s height’  which is called wasting,
  • and being ‘deficient in vitamins and minerals’ which is called ‘micronutrient malnutrition‘.
Estimates of undernourished people in the world, 1990-2012 – FAO 2010 and 2012 report compared 19

# Data Sources


# FAO Food Security Indicator
  • Data: Many indicators – the full list is here.
  • Geographical coverage: Global – by country and world region (some indicators are only available for developing countries).
  • Time span: Since 1990.
  • Available at: Available for download here.
  •  The whole dataset can be downloaded in one xls file.

# WHO – Global Health Observatory (GHO)
  • Data: Underweight children
  • Geographical coverage: Global – by country and region.
  • Time span: Since 1990 – with projections to 2025.
  • Available at: Online here.
  •  This data is presented in the context of the Millenium Development Goals (MDG). The UN’s MDG website also presents data.

# International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
  • Data: Global Hunger Index and single dimensions (Prevalence of undernourishment in the population, prevalence of underweight in children under five years, under-five mortality rate)
  • Geographical coverage:  Global – by country.
  • Time span: Since 1990.
  • Available at: Online here.
  •  The Global Hunger Index is a multidimensional measure of hunger. It was first published by the ‘Welthungerhilfe’ but is now published by IFPR. Here is the Wikipedia entry.

# World Bank – World Development Indicators


# Regular Important Publications

A regular FAO report is the The State of Food Insecurity in the World report.