Geography The Nutrition Transition
Daniel C. Ervin, David López-Carr, Anna Carla López-Carr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0078


The nutrition transition theory concerns the broad changes in the pattern of human diet that have occurred across time and space. The idea was created by Dr. Barry Popkin and arose from the demographic transition theory, which describes the changes in human birth and death patterns, and the epidemiological transition theory, which describes the changes in causes of death. The nutrition transition is described by five stages: food gathering, famine, receding famine, degenerative diseases, and behavioral change toward a healthy, balanced diet. Currently, the vast majority of the world’s people remain in pattern 3 (receding famine) or pattern 4 (degenerative diseases). They are either emerging from undernutrition because of a lack of calories or certain nutrients or they are engaged in a modern form of malnutrition consisting of too-many calories from unhealthy sources. The modern diet of pattern 4 is high in oils, sugars, animal products, fat, cholesterol, sweeteners, and processed and prepared foods. The results of this transition are the diminishment of famine and the diseases that accompany it, which have plagued humankind for most of our existence. Unfortunately, this is complemented by the rapid growth of nutrition-related noncommunicable diseases (NR-NCDs). The most obvious of these is obesity, but it also includes diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and the metabolic syndrome. The transition to this new diet has already occurred throughout the developed world and is occurring in the developing nations at an alarming speed. However, the shift between eating patterns remains incomplete, and many places face both the diseases of undernutrition and malnutrition, the so-called double burden. The negative outcomes of these two patterns are exacerbated among the world’s poor; both the poor portions of the developed world and the poor nations of the developing world. This topic is one that overlaps with many academic fields, including medicine, nutrition, public health, epidemiology, and demography. As geographers we will attempt to provide a broad introduction to the theory, but we believe that geography is a particularly relevant perspective. The nutrition transition is spatially heterogeneous; a slum household in a city may be in stage 2 of the transition, while a nearby luxury home may be in stage 5. Geography and geographical methods sensitive to spatial scale are therefore critical. Since much of the research on this topic is in public health, there is a great opportunity for geographers to become more active in solving existing nutrition paradoxes. This article will provide literature on the current status of nutrition transition throughout the world, with the greater focus on the newer pattern of malnutrition. This will include its causes, its effects, related concepts, responses, and future directions.

General Overviews

This section contains general overviews of the concept of the nutrition transition. Popkin 2002a is an article-length introduction to the theory, while Caballero and Popkin 2002 is a book-length treatment of the same topic. World Health Organization 2003 provides a more comprehensive and less academic perspective. Popkin 2002b represents an introduction to the particular issues developing countries face. In contrast to the rest of the sources in this section, Semba and Bloem 2008 and United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition 2010 concern mostly undernutrition.

  • Caballero, Benjamin, and Barry M. Popkin, eds. The Nutrition Transition: Diet and Disease in the Developing World. New York: Academic Press, 2002.

    A book-long treatment of the nutrition transition, edited by two of the leading scholars in the field. Provides a global overview and more detail on selected topics of importance. An excellent book to begin your search, and perhaps all that is needed for the casual reader.

  • Popkin, Barry M. “An Overview on the Nutrition Transition and Its Health Implications: The Bellagio Meeting.” Public Health Nutrition 5.1A (2002a): 93–103.

    A short review of the theory of the nutrition transition, easily understood and replete with informative figures. Written by the preeminent scholar on the topic. Quickly sketches the outline of the nutrition transition as it has occurred in major regions of the world, discussing what is known and areas where data are lacking.

  • Popkin, Barry M. “The Shift in Stages of the Nutrition Transition in the Developing World Differs from Past Experiences!Public Health Nutrition 5.1A (2002b): 205–214.

    DOI: 10.1079/PHN2001295

    Spells out how and why the current nutrition transition process in the developing world is different than what occurred in the developed world. Good introduction to the issues affecting the developing world.

  • Semba, Richard D., and Martin W. Bloem, eds. Nutrition and Health in Developing Countries. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-59745-464-3

    An academic book providing information about undernutrition, although it does devote some time at the end to the nutrition-related noncommunicable diseases. A start to the topic of the global nutrition situation.

  • United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition. Progress in Nutrition: 6th Report on the World Nutrition Situation. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations System, 2010.

    An overview of the nutrition situation throughout much of the world, focused mostly on the problems of undernutrition.

  • World Health Organization. Diet, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases: Report of a Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation. Technical Report 916. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2003.

    A detailed report outlining how changes in diet have affected the morbidity of chronic diseases worldwide. A good reference work for this topic, and written in an accessible manner.

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