Too Much or Not Enough

Malnutrition – A worldwide problem

Not enough food to fill the stomach. This is bitter reality for about 2 billion people on our globe. Millions die every year. Undernourishment is still one of the most pressing problems in the poorest countries of the world. There is, however, an increasing number of nutritional problems in developing countries also found in industrialized countries. Food that is too fatty, too sweet or salty causes overweight, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. “Double Burden” is the term experts use for this phenomenon that two contradicting nutritional problems exists next to each other. In the joint project “Nutrition and Public Health”, nutritionists from the University of Potsdam and Asian researchers examine various aspects of this phenomenon and look for ways to relieve the health systems in the affected countries.

Overweight and obesity are affluence problems of industrial nations. This picture is still deeply rooted in the collective thinking of the western world. The data collected by nutritionists all over the world suggest something different. Adiposity also exists and continues to grow in the least developed countries. Similar to Europe and North America, many people in Africa, Asia and Oceania consume more energy through food than they can use. Similar to those in the northern hemisphere, many in the global south have a sedentary lifestyle. The double burden of undernourishment and overnutrition has a devastating effect on the health systems that are already inadequately equipped with personnel and materials. Well-trained health experts and innovative approaches are necessary to master these problems.

There is a shortage of both. Equipment is often sparse and possibilities limited. At public universities in developing countries, teaching and research mainly take place under difficult conditions. "They lack practically everything, especially money," says Dr. Ina M. Ott from the Institute of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Potsdam. For example, there are hardly any modern instruments in the laboratories of universities and research institutions in Vietnam and Laos. Complex analyses or experimental studies are often not possible. Sometimes even laboratory rooms do not exist and it is difficult to exchange ideas and results with scientists from other countries. This is exactly the starting point of the project "Nutrition and Public Health" of the Potsdam Institute of Nutritional Sciences. Scientists from Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand want to promote a mutual exchange in the field of nutritional sciences with researchers from Potsdam lead by Florian J. Schweigert, Professor of Physiology and Pathophysiology of Nutrition. The motto is 'Help for self-help'. "We want to use the existing structures to sustainably improve the situation at the universities in these countries," says Ott, the project coordinator. The almost 200,000 € in funding come from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

In 2005 the DAAD launched the program "Partnerships for the Health Sector in Developing Countries" (PAGEL) and has since supported joint projects between German universities and developing countries. The aim is to improve teaching and research at the partner universities as well as the level of health care on a long-term basis. The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) provides the financial resources.

Together with the Khon Kaen University in Thailand, the University of Health Sciences in Laos and the Thai Nguyen University in Vietnam, the University of Potsdam now forms a research quartet focusing on the "Double Burden" problem. The aim is to initiate joint scientific investigations and to establish or expand a public health degree program with modules in nutritional sciences. Ott stresses that it is not only important to build a network between the North and South but also between Asian countries. "There should be a continuous exchange between scientists, scholars and students." Eventually the health system should benefit from such networks.

Two MA students from Potsdam began with a concrete research project. They traveled to Thailand for three months to carefully examine the iodine supply of the people there. "Relief measures often have no impact because they do not consider cultural and social backgrounds," describes Ott. Similar to Germany, Thailand also adds iodine to common salt. "Iodine deficiency is a problem in Thailand," Ott explains. "However, the question is whether the iodized salt really gets into the cooking pots," the scientist says. Traditionally Thai people season their food with soy sauce, not so much with salt. In rural areas there is another problem. The salt is kept out in the open, often next to the cooking place. It is still unclear whether the iodine content is retained under such conditions, as Ott explains. The two students use questionnaires to evaluate how often households use salt for cooking. They will analyze salt samples to establish the actual iodine levels in them.

In this way the project partners want to work locally and at eye level, including annual summer schools in the partner countries, to achieve sustainable results. The nutrition of people during their lifetime will be in the foreground of these studies. Students and alumni from the four cooperating countries will be able to get information about the current research results, e.g. regarding the influence of a mother's nutrition on the unborn child or the special needs of the elderly.

Lastly the researchers expect positive effects on research and teaching in nutritional sciences at the University of Potsdam. "While we can contribute biochemical knowhow, our project partners have a lot of experience in 'Public Health', i.e. in the data collection and analysis on the spot," Ott comments. In addition, the project partners in Potsdam and at the partner universities want to establish the English module "International Nutrition", followed by a separate MA-degree course. Course content will be increasingly communicated via e-learning lectures at the University of Potsdam and in the partner countries. This will include online tests, comprehensive modules and videos. "This is much more authentic and sustainable when someone is living in these countries and gaining the respective experience," and students in particular would benefit from it, Ott summarizes. 

The Project

Nutrition and Public Health Participants: Department of Physiology and Pathophysiology Duration: 2012–2016Funded by: German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)

The Scientist

Dr. Ina Ott studied nutritional science at the University of Potsdam and completed her doctoral thesis in 2013. She is currently researching renal failure in diabetic patients at the Institute of Nutritional Sciences. 


Universität Potsdam
Institut für Ernährungswissenschaft
Arthur-Scheunert-Allee 114–116
14558 Nuthetal (Potsdam-Rehbrücke)


Text: Heike Kampe, Online-Editing: Julia Schwaibold, Translation: Susanne Voigt