might targeting malnutrition (not undernourishment!) be an important cause area?

post by peter_janicki · 2020-09-20T11:01:11.085Z · EA · GW · 5 comments

This is a question post.

I recently (finally) started to hear some audiobooks about nutrition and recently I stumbled about a podcast directed at physicians (it´s in german... search for amboss podcast, "ernährung als medizin" = nutrition as medicine) with the medical director of "physicians association for nutrition" (www.pan-int.org -> great links there!) and he argued, that malnutrition (not undernourishment!) is way more detrimental to world health than tobacco, alcohol, lack of exercising etc. combined. And it sure costs a lot of money/ ressources... I was impressed. And I was a little bit offended by reality, because I quitted smoking, I´m not drinking, I get some exercise, ... but my dietary habits haven´t been great for years...

In our surveys some effective altruists consider mental health as a top cause. Mental Health makes up to some 120 million DALYs worldwide in 2017 (refering to this source: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/daly-from-mental-health-and-substance-use-disorders?tab=chart&country=OWID_WRL~Western%20Europe )? So I looked up, what the figures are for malnutrition are and here (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30954305/) they quote it´s about twice the size in DALYs, namely some 250 million DALYs worldwide in 2017.

But are there ea(-associated) organizations promoting evidence-based diets for the sake of health? I can find some organizations working on undernourishment (Vitamin A, Iodine, etc. - great effective things!). But again, that´s not malnutrition. Do we recommend people to get involved into this area? Should some people think about getting involved here?

If this area really is twice the size of mental health - is it neglected here?


answer by Khorton · 2020-09-20T16:22:51.150Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would guess (though I could easily be wrong!) that more than 2x annually is spent on nutrition programs than mental health programs. But there are a lot of different ways to fight malnutrition. You might be able to find a specific intervention that's particularly cost-effective and can make a big difference. If you do find something like that, please post about it!

comment by peter_janicki · 2020-09-20T17:17:05.154Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thx for commenting. I am not sure, whether I got your point. If you are writing about nutrition-programs - do you mean getting people specific foods or informing them? As to my experience in germany there is no powerful organization or lobby -group trying to promote better nutrition because of the impressive health effects/reduced costs etc.

comment by peter_janicki · 2020-09-20T16:48:35.003Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thx for commenting. I should have written a little bit more to clarify some things. I guess, you are right about spending money on nutrition programs vs mental health. But as I understand those physicians, it´s not about nutrition programs at all. It´s about "eat your fruits and veggies", eat only small amounts of meat (or maybe no meat at all), cancel sugar, reduce salt etc. Most of this is totally known, but seeing the effect-size was staggering to me. It´s not about having a tiny budget, it´s about the foods one buys. I guess many people would even save some money eating in a more healthy way.

Arguing on "eat your fruits and veggies", reduce meat... because of animal welfare, because of climate change, because of harming the environment etc. totally makes sense to me. but my guess is: these arguments are considered by a huge portion of the population as ideologically biased. But arguing this diet is what your physicians recommend is something different - maybe/ hopefully makes a difference.

In Germany the green party once proposed a (voluntary) veggie-day in canteens during an election campaign. Even chancellor Merkel argued in favor of having "your meatballs". It might have had a different outcome, if physicians recommended some veggie-days because of health issues and reduced health costs.


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comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2020-09-20T18:09:36.633Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Could you clarify the difference between malnutrition and undernourishment?

Replies from: peter_janicki
comment by peter_janicki · 2020-09-20T18:59:19.625Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sure. Malnutrition: eating the wrong things as a voluntary choice despite having alternatives. Undernourishment: one does not get enough food, f.e. because there is not enough/because one can‘t afford it. malnutrition seems to be a big problem in middle and high income countries. In low-income countries undernourishment would be a big problem. My post is only about eating the wrong stuff on a „voluntary“ basis. One can afford fruits and veggies, but f.e. still eats red meat, salty chips etc. And those 250 million DALYs they only account for eating the wrong stuff (but not because of scarcity). At least if all those numbers are correct.