top of page
  • Writer's pictureSBE VIT

Malnutrition: The Forgotten Epidemic in Indonesia and India

A Joint Article by the Journalism Team of SBE UISC 2021 and SBE VIT 2021

SBEWARE is an annual event organized by SBE UISC that aims to raise awareness regarding social issues. This year, SBEWARE is highlighting health education in collaboration with Save the Children in Indonesia to help stunted and malnourished children.

As developing countries, Indonesia and India still have a long way to go in tackling malnutrition problems such as stunting. Stunting is an indicator of chronic undernutrition- the result of prolonged food deprivation and/or disease or illness. Commonly found in children under five, stunting is indicated by height less than -2 standard deviations from the WHO child growth standards median. Survei Status Gizi Balita Indonesia (SSGBI) showed that the prevalence of stunting in 2019 was 27.67%, decreasing by 3.13% from the previous year. Although progress has been made, the prevalence still exceeded 20%, the limit set by WHO. In 2002, UNICEF estimated that the occurrence of stunting among children less than 5 years old in India was 45%. The stunting rate in both countries varies among different regions.

Stunting Prevalence in India and Indonesia In Indonesia, 27% of children under five in Kepulauan Riau Province were stunted as of 2013, while in Nusa Tenggara Timur Province the number is more than 50%. Until recently, Nusa Tenggara Timur is still known to have 21 cities or districts that had a high or very high stunting prevalence. It is regarded as one of the Indonesian provinces with high-prevalence cities, along with East Java (23 cities), South Sulawesi (20 cities), and North Sumatera (20 cities).

Severity of Stunting

Number of Districts/Cities







Very High


Table 1. Number of Cities/Districts in Indonesia by Severity Level of Stunting (2018) India’s high-stunting districts are heavily clustered in the north and centre of India. Differences in stunting prevalence between low and high burden districts were explained by differences in women’s low body mass index (19% of the difference), education (12%), children’s adequate diet (9%), assets (7%), open defecation (7%), age at marriage (7%), antenatal care (6%), and household size (5%).

Prevalence of Stunting

Number of Districts

Stunting rate (%)

Stunted Children

Low (<20%)




Medium (20-29.9%)




High (30-39.9%)




Very high (≥40%)




Table 2. Number of Districts, Stunting Rate, and Absolute Numbers of Stunted Children in India by Prevalence of Stunting (2018-2019)

Factors of Stunting The UNICEF framework distinguishes between immediate determinants (diets and disease burdens) and underlying determinants. The immediate determinants included indicators related to maternal undernutrition and child feeding practices. A BMI < 18.5 kg is regarded as grounds for maternal undernutrition. The underlying determinants examined included the mother’s education (≥10 years of schooling), age at marriage (≥18 years old), sanitation, asset index, and household size.

Maternal malnutrition is considered as the main factor of stunting, both in Indonesia and India. This is shown by the prevalence of stunting in Indonesian newborn babies that reached 23%. In India, about 36% of the population of women are underweight, and 56% of women and 56% of adolescent girls between 15 and 19 years old suffer from iron deficiency anemia due to undernourishment. It is confirmed that the probability of stunting caused by deficiencies in the intrauterine environment is equivalent to stunting caused by the child’s health and nutrition during their early postnatal life. Nutrition requirements in pregnant and lactating women are higher since their energy needs increase by 13% during pregnancy and 25% higher during lactation. However, this necessity might not be supported by adequate women’s education, sanitation systems, and food security.

The current pandemic situation has led to a dependency on imports of rice and soybean, two staple foods in Indonesia. These conditions are fathomed as the results of frequent hydro-meteorological disasters such as floods and land fires. The risk of such disasters is influenced especially by accelerating climate change. The rising temperature, humidity, and rainfall can lead to changes in plant physiology, plant diseases, and lower productivity. For example, the El Nino phenomenon in Maluku induced a decline in soybean yield by 10.7%, while La Nina dropped it by 11.4%. In the context of animal protein, Indonesia is also threatened by climate change as well as destructive and illegal fishing and land-based pollution. Besides that, the rapid growth of population and urbanization has prompted agricultural land conversion.

In India, the poor sanitation system and low level of women’s education level plays a more pivotal role in causing chronic malnutrition and stunting in children. Poor sanitation systems include open defecation and access to unsanitary drinking water. It is approximated that 620 million Indian people use public toilets to defecate outside, especially in rural households. Infection through drinking water can result in the reduction of nutrients absorption. Besides that, poor sanitation leads to the possibility of water pooling, which due to the influx of garbage and refuse, becomes the perfect environment for mosquitoes to breed and transmit malaria. Regarding women’s education level, a study has shown that Indian districts with higher rates of female literacy have less stunting prevalence on average. This result aligns with another finding that shows children of lower-ranking mothers tend to have shorter heights.

Similar Diseases

Other diseases resulting from malnutrition and protein deficiency include marasmus (cause being inadequacy of nutrients) and kwashiorkor (seen in famine-struck regions), which is still prevalent in both countries. The general yet major determinants of these diseases are broadly classified into environmental factors including the physical and social environment, behavioral factors, healthcare service-related and biological factors (genetic/prenatal).

Sanitation and Food Supply Monitoring (Source: Areas that have famines or poor environmental sanitation have higher percentages of children with marasmus. In Indonesia, other than hygiene problems in some areas, many families are unable to buy nutritious food for their children due to insufficient income. A cross-sectional study was conducted in a single tertiary referral hospital in Bali, Indonesia, from January 2017 to December 2018. From a total of 138 children with acute malnutrition, 133 children (96.4%) were classified as affected by marasmus and 15 children (10.9%) were suffering from kwashiorkor. Marasmus is often found in children who do not get enough breast milk and only get formula or toddlers who are given weaned food too early or too late, while kwashiorkor is often found in rural areas where people consume more staple food in the form of carbohydrates than great quality protein.

Record Data (Source: India stands at a very vulnerable position with one of the highest rates of undernutrition in the world in spite of improvement in food availability and poverty alleviation. It is the direct cause of about 300,000 deaths per year and is indirectly responsible for about half of all deaths in young children. A study conducted in Maharashtra shows a maximum of 63% of marasmic kwashiorkor and malnourished children between the ages of 2-3 years. Cases of Marasmus alone was 13% and kwashiorkor was recorded to be 24% at the site of study. In rural regions of India, the prevalence of marasmus is dominated over kwashiorkor due to various factors that are specific to the country.

Normal curve distribution of children in the underweight category (source: NFHS data)

Crucially, protein-energy malnutrition has two kinds of impacts on growth – cognitive growth (including behavioural changes) and physical growth. To function optimally, the central nervous system requires a variety of amino acids, some of which are crucially supplemented by diet. Without the necessary supplementation of protein, the brain is adversely impacted. These look like tissue damage, disorderly differentiation, reduction in synapses and synaptic neurotransmitters, hence resulting in delayed reception by younger children. The second impact is the loss of adipose tissue and muscle. Infants may have sunken fontanelles due to dehydration. The affected child will weigh less than 60% of the appropriate weight for their age.

Superfoods as a Solution for Malnutrition

One way to deal with stunting that is constantly being researched and developed is the usage of superfood. Superfood is the term coined for food that has beneficial, health-promoting properties due to its nutrient-rich nature. In Indonesia, the most well-known superfood is Moringa oleifera, with its leaves as the main part to utilize. A research in Indonesia conducted in 2018 also showed that Moringa oleifera extract can increase toddlers’ height. The results showed that Moringa oleifera extract could increase body height by 0.342 cm with a prediction of 16.2%.

Moringa leaves are highly rich in protein, calcium, potassium, fiber, and vitamins. 100 grams of moringa leaves contain 6.7 grams of protein and 0.9 grams fiber. Moreover, since Moringa is a legume, it enriches the soil and is drought-resistant. It propagates easily, offering a way for malnourished populations to become healthy again without a constant influx of food provisions from outside sources. This leads to the possibility of making supplementary foods based on moringa leaves to deal with stunting on children.

A realization of said possibility is the production of chicken nuggets with moringa leaves in Probolinggo, East Java. Upon further analysis, the nutrient levels of chicken nuggets with 50 g of moringa leaves contained 18.4% crude protein, 2.8% crude fat, and 3.4% crude fibre. While the amount of crude protein and fat are not far off from chicken nuggets without moringa leaves, the amount of crude fibre is definitely higher.

Moringa has also long been used in India as a medicinal plant and thus a nutrient booster. Aside from that, superfoods such as spirulina capsules and candies are gaining popularity for overcoming stunting. Spirulina chikki is a seaweed nutritional superfood which is made by stuffing spirulina in traditional peanut jaggery chikki. It has gained popularity all over India for its high nutritional content which can successfully combat the problem of stunting and malnutrition, as it is easily available to malnourished children belonging to different sections of society. According to studies conducted, a single tablespoon (7 grams) of dried spirulina powder contains proteins, vitamin B1, B2, & B3, minerals such as copper and iron, and minimal amounts of almost every other nutrient that one needs.

Superfoods to combat malnutrition: Moringa leaves (left) and spirulina chikki (right) (source:


The inequality of nutritional conditions between cities is present in both India and Indonesia. The profile of malnutrition in the two countries shows that socioeconomic and environmental circumstances are the prominent cause of this burden. Among malnutrition diseases, stunting is one of the most common ones. These conditions are affected by maternal malnutrition, food insecurity, and poor sanitation. To help alleviate malnutrition problems, several kinds of superfoods are being developed, such as moringa chicken nuggets and spirulina capsules. However, aside from that, there should be concrete actions taken by both governments to tackle malnutrition problems.


  1. Beal et al. (2018). A review of child stunting determinants in Indonesia. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 14(4), e12617.

  2. Cooley et al. (2016). Forecasting the Impact of Maternal Undernutrition on Child Health Outcomes in Indonesia (RTI Press Publication No. RR-0028-1612).

  3. Dewey, K.G. (2016). Reducing stunting by improving maternal, infant and young child nutrition in regions such as South Asia: evidence, challenges and opportunities. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 12(Suppl 1), 27-38.

  4. Humas Litbangkes. (2019, October 18). Menggembirakan, Angka Stunting Turun 3,1% dalam Setahun. Badan Litbangkes Kementerian Kesehatan RI

  5. Mordhorst, K. (2021). In Indonesia, Illegal Fishing Hurts More Than Just Fish. U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.

  6. SMERU Research Institute. (2020). Strategic Review of Food Security and Nutrition in Indonesia: 2019–2020 Update.

  7. Bhutia, D. T. (2014). Protein energy malnutrition in India: the plight of our under five children. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, 3(1), 63.

  8. Forrester, T. E., Badaloo, A. V., Boyne, M. S., Osmond, C., Thompson, D., Green, C., … & Gluckman, P. D. (2012). Prenatal factors contribute to the emergence of kwashiorkor or marasmus in severe undernutrition: evidence for the predictive adaptation model. PloS one, 7(4), e35907.

  9. Cravioto, J., & DeLicardie, E. (1973). Environmental correlates of severe clinical malnutrition and language development in survivors of kwashiorkor or marasmus. Boletín de la Oficina Sanitaria Panamericana (OSP) English Edition; 7 (2), feb. 1973.

  10. Spears, D., Ghosh, A., & Cumming, O. (2013). Open defecation and childhood stunting in India: an ecological analysis of new data from 112 districts. PloS one, 8(9), e73784.

  11. Kulkarni, B., & Mamidi, R. S. (2019). Nutrition rehabilitation of children with severe acute malnutrition: Revisiting studies undertaken by the National Institute of Nutrition. The Indian journal of medical research, 150(2), 139.

  12. Udani, P. M. (1992). Protein energy malnutrition (PEM), brain and various facets of child development. The Indian Journal of Pediatrics, 59(2), 165-186.

  13. Kar, B. R., Rao, S. L., & Chandramouli, B. a.(2008). Cognitive development in children with chronic protein-energy malnutrition. Behavioral and Brain Functions: BBF, 4, 31.

  14. Titi-Lartey, O. A., & Gupta, V. (2020). Marasmus.

  15. Pingale, S., Patil, V. W., Hire, M., & Katkade, A. (2014). Prevalence of Kwashiorkor, Marasmus, Marasmic Kwashiorkor and Age wise Distribution of Malnourished Tribal Children of Town Dhadgaon, District-Nandurbar of Maharashtra State, India. Research Journal of Pharmacy and Technology, 7(1), 59-63.

  16. ROUHIER, B. (2006). Spirulina and Malnutrition. FAO and the FMFH Partners.

  17. Moyo, B., Masika, P. J., Hugo, A., & Muchenje, V. (2011). Nutritional characterization of Moringa (Moringa oleifera Lam.) leaves. African Journal of Biotechnology, 10(60), 12925-12933.

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page