Could it be that having such easy access to food and being seemingly well-nourished, we may, in fact, be at risk of malnutrition? Let’s discuss the problem of hidden hunger.
According to Unicef, the 2018 Global Nutrition Report reveals that malnutrition is unacceptably high and affects every country in the world. It points out ‘worrying prevalence and universality of malnutrition in all its forms’. It indicates that a third of reproductive-age women are anaemic, while 39% of the world’s adults are overweight or obese and each year around 20 million babies are born underweight.
How is this possible even in developed countries, where we have been concerned about food excess and wasting rather than lack of food?
Poor diet quality
When the quality of food that we eat is poor and inadequate to meet our bodies’ needs, so-called ‘hidden hunger’ may occur. We have been observing a shift from diets based on minimally processed foods towards highly processed options. Such food is mostly energy-dense and low in essential micronutrients. In other words, foods providing empty calories. This has led to not only increased rates of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases but also made us face a problem of malnourished and yet obese society.
Poor diet is one of the most common causes of hidden hunger. Simple diets based mostly on staple crops, such as rice, potatoes, wheat, provide a large proportion of energy but may have low amounts of essential vitamins and minerals. Another factor might be lack of knowledge and understanding that a balanced, nutritious diet is important in maintaining good health. Also, some people may simply not be able to afford or access varied, nutritious and fortified foods.
What is hidden hunger?
What does the expression ‘hidden hunger’ exactly mean? It describes the state of deficiency of essential vitamins and minerals that occurs largely without symptoms until those deficiencies become severe enough to show clinical signs. As Kul C. Gautam, former deputy executive director of UNICEF explains: ‘The ‘hidden hunger’ due to micronutrient deficiency does not produce hunger as we know it. You might not feel it in the belly, but it strikes at the core of your health and vitality’.
Hidden hunger affects two billion people across the world, according to FAO and WHO. The most common micronutrient deficiencies are iodine, iron, and zinc deficiencies. Less common but still prevalent are vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and folate deficiencies. Even mild to moderate deficiencies can affect our well-being and development. Not to mention more severe insufficiencies resulting in mental impairment, poor health, low productivity or even death.
Consequences of hidden hunger
Let’s look at the potential consequences of hidden hunger:
Babies: low birth weight, higher mortality rate, impaired mental development
Children: Stunting, reduced mental capacity, frequent infections, reduced learning,
Adolescents: stunting, reduced mental capacity, fatigue, increased vulnerability to infection
Pregnant women: increased mortality, increased perinatal complications
Adults: reduced productivity, poor socioeconomic status, malnutrition, increased risk of chronic diseases
Elderly: Increased mortality, including osteoporosis and mental impairment, higher mortality rate
Solutions to the problem
Now that we see how severe this problem is, what solutions can we expect to improve it?
Supplementation – nutrients are delivered in the form of syrup or pills in a highly absorbable form. This may be the fastest way to control deficiency in individuals or population.
Fortification – the addition of micronutrients to processed foods to increase the added nutritional value of a product and prevent specific nutritional deficiencies in the population.
Biofortification – breeding of food crops, using conventional or transgenic methods, to increase their micronutrient content
Dietary diversification – increasing the quantity and the variety of micronutrient-rich foods consumed. This has a priority over fortification as it improves the intake of many food components such as antioxidants, probiotics, fibre. It also ensures an adequate combination of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and protein) and not just micronutrients.
In short – a balanced, varied diet is crucial for our health and wellbeing. Choosing nutritious, minimally processed foods should be the top of our list when it comes to achieving a healthy diet and weight, and avoiding health complications in the future.
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