What Is Hunger?

A mother feeds her child Plumpy'Nut, the peanut paste used to treat malnutrition.
Olivia Acland
Action Against Hunger, Democratic Republic of Congo
Samina (right), an Action Against Hunger Community Health Worker, checks 4-year-old Kailash's arm with a color-coded measuring tape to see if he has gained weight since her last visit.

Hunger is more complicated than empty bellies: interconnected issues of poverty, inequality, conflict, climate change, gender discrimination, and weak government and health systems all play a role in driving hunger.

Samina (right), an Action Against Hunger Community Health Worker, checks 4-year-old Kailash's arm with a color-coded measuring tape to see if he has gained weight since her last visit.
Destruction after a shelling in North Kiev

What is the definition of hunger?

Hunger is defined by the United Nations as the periods when people experience severe food insecurity—meaning that they go for entire days without eating due to lack of money, access to food, or other resources.

Here are some definitions of key terms:

  • Hunger is the distress associated with lack of food. The threshold for food deprivation, or undernourishment, is fewer than 1,800 calories per day.
  • Undernutrition goes beyond calories to signify deficiencies in energy, protein, and/or essential vitamins and minerals.
  • Malnutrition refers more broadly to both undernutrition and overnutrition.
  • Food security relates to food availability, access, and utilization. When people have consistent and adequate access to enough safe and nutritious food to maintain an active and healthy life, they are considered food secure.

What happens when people go hungry?

Prolonged periods of food insecurity can lead to malnutrition, which occurs when the body lacks sufficient vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients needed to thrive.

A multilayered issue, malnutrition manifests in many forms, including:

  • Wasting, or acute malnutrition: When one is too thin for their height. This can happen suddenly, caused by a severe hunger crisis, or something that occurs gradually but persistently. It can be treated, but moderate and severe cases carry an increased risk of death.
  • Stunting, or chronic malnutrition: When a child is too short for their age. This can occur when children do not have access to diverse nutrients, drink dirty or contaminated water, or lack proper healthcare. Stunted growth in children can cause life-long physical and cognitive damage.
  • Micronutrient deficiencies: When the body lacks a type of vitamin or mineral (e.g., iron, iodine, folate, vitamin A, and zinc deficiencies) needed for healthy growth and development.
  • Being overweight: When someone is too heavy for one’s height. A poor diet can cause someone to be overweight, putting them at greater risk of diet-related, non-communicable diseases later in life.
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Global hunger crisis in 2022

After steadily declining for a decade, hunger is on the rise, impacting nearly 10% of the world’s population. From 2019 to 2021, the number of undernourished people grew by as many as 150 million, a crisis driven largely by conflict, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rosi with her two-year-old son Ayan

People Go to Bed Hungry Each Night


Of All Child Deaths Worldwide Are From Hunger and Related Causes

Women participate in a cooking demonstration as part of Action Against Hunger's programs in West Pokot, Kenya.

People Cannot Afford A Healthy Diet

Who does hunger affect?

An overwhelming majority of the world’s hungry people reside in the developing world, where extreme poverty and lack of access to nutritious food often leads to malnutrition. Women and children are particularly vulnerable.

A woman kneels in her fields, which have been dried up and devastated by drought.
Peter Caton for Action Against Hunger, Ethiopia
A woman admires the produce growing from above in her garden. Her husband stands in the background.
Fabeha Monir for Action Against Hunger, Bangladesh

I feel very happy. I remember how sick she was then, and how healthy she is now, and I am so grateful.”

— Fatuma, mom of Halima, who recovered from malnutrition

Saving Halima’s Life

We bought seeds and tried hard [but then] the rain stopped and we couldn't harvest anything. We keep on losing what we have...our children suffer from hunger.”

— Darmi, a mother in drought-affected Ethiopia

Climate Change in East Africa

We were deprived of nutritious food, and so we were suffering with health problems. We could hardly get rice and salt during the days when we had no work.”

— Sabuda, who learned to farm and raise fish

Resiliency in a Changing Climate: “We are building dreams from ruins.”

What Causes World Hunger?

The world's hungriest countries

These countries need immediate life-saving help.

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