Hunger Terms

Below are some terms about hunger used by medical and aid professionals.

Maize pulseMalnutrition

Malnutrition refers to a lack of proper nutrition, commonly caused by not having enough to eat or not eating enough nutritious food. Illness such as diarrhea, pneumonia, measles and malaria also contribute to malnutrition because they prevent the body from properly using food that is consumed (World Health Organization). This lack of nutrition limits an individual’s ability to grow, learn, do physical work and fight off diseases. The term covers a range of problems such as underweight, stunting, micronutrient deficiency, and even obesity (World Food Programme).


Undernourishment describes the status of people who do not consume enough calories (energy) to meet their minimum physiological needs. The term is a measure of a country’s ability to gain access to food and is normally derived from Food Balance Sheets prepared by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (World Food Programme).


Underweight usually refers to children who are dangerously thin. Underweight is measured by comparing the weight-for-age of a child with a reference population of well-nourished and healthy children. It is estimated that one out of six children in developing countries is underweight (World Food Programme).


Stunting reflects shortness-for-age; an indicator of chronic malnutrition and calculated by comparing the height-for-age of a child with a reference population of well-nourished and healthy children (World Food Programme). The World Health Organization estimates that over one quarter of the world’s children are stunted, 167 million of them in developing countries.


Wasting refers to a severe process of weight loss, usually associated with starvation and/or disease. Like underweight, wasting is calculated by comparing weight-for-height of a child with a reference population of well-nourished and healthy children. It is often used to assess the severity of emergencies because it is strongly related to mortality (World Food Programme).

Micronutrient deficiency

Micronutrient deficiency refers to a lack in important vitamins and minerals needed for good health and physical development. Micronutrient deficiency is sometimes called “hidden hunger” because it can affect people who may be getting enough calories, but not enough vitamins and minerals. Some of the most common micronutrient deficiencies are deficiencies in iodine, vitamin A, and iron (Food and Agriculture Organization).