Hidden hunger refers to the deficiency of essential vitamins and minerals, or micronutrients, and is less obvious than normal hunger. The condition does not have any specific signs or symptoms and yet this micronutrient malnutrition troubles over 2 billion people (1 out of 3 persons) worldwide, and can cause health problems that are similar to those caused by calorie deficiency. Hidden hunger mostly affects children, pregnant women, and individuals in poor countries. Indian parents are focused on providing foods rich in carbohydrates and fats, but essential micronutrients do not get due attention. Hence, poor diet is one of the main reasons for hidden hunger in children.

Causes of hidden hunger

Along with calories, children need micronutrients for vital functions like immunity and brain development. Hidden hunger occurs when intake and absorption of micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron, zinc, iodine, and folic acid, etc. are not sufficient.

Also, requirement for micronutrients is significantly high during some stages of life, like pregnancy and lactation, or during an illness. So, any gap between the increased demand and supply of nutrients can cause hidden hunger.

Now, a diet consisting of staple crops like maize, wheat, and rice, is a good source of energy, but provides less quantity of essential vitamins and minerals. The quality of diet depends upon various factors though, such as the price of ingredients, dietary preferences based on culture, peer pressure, geographical factors, environmental factors, and seasonal factors.

Another cause of this deficiency is poor absorption of nutrients, due to an infection or a parasite. Absorption can also be impaired due to dietary factors. For example, vitamin A can be better absorbed if consumed along with dietary fat. Iron absorption can be inhibited by the consumption of some compounds like tannis or phytates. Intake of alcohol interferes with the absorption of micronutrients too.

Obesity and hidden hunger

Undernutrition, being overweight, or obese, is often same as hidden hunger. Uneven patterns of diet and lifestyle are leading causes of undernutrition, which is associated with increasing rates of obesity even in the wealthiest countries. Obesity increases the risk of type 2 diabetes as well.

Obese kids have a higher chance of being affected by type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and hypertension in the future.

In extreme cases, obesity can lead to bone and joint troubles too. When compared to a person with a healthy weight, an obese person has 60% more chance of developing arthritis. Obese children are also at greater risk of heart attack, stroke, and various types of cancers such as breast, kidney, liver, colon, and ovarian cancers, when they become adults.

Impact of hidden hunger during pregnancy

Hidden hunger during pregnancy may limit intrauterine growth, which can affect the development of the child. Maternal malnutrition can also result in premature birth. Hidden hunger affects a child’s health in various ways based on the deficiency of the particular micronutrient:

  • Iron deficiency can cause anaemia, which can affect the supply of oxygen to the tissues, which can further cause fatigue, headache, and poor control of body temperature.
  • Zinc is a vital nutrient that is essential for the development of the central nervous system. Its deficiency can cause the slow development of the body and affect the brain. Zinc deficiency also reduces immunity against diarrheal diseases. Diarrhoea can aggravate malnutrition as the child loses important micronutrients due to frequent and watery stools, while the illness increases the need for energy and nutrition.
  • Vitamin A is a vital micronutrient for improving immunity against several diseases and is also essential for eyesight, especially in kids.
  • Folic acid is linked with the development of the foetus and hence its deficiency can cause birth deformities.

Kids affected by hidden hunger in the early stages of life have a low probability of finishing their studies and a high probability of suffering from chronic disorders.

Solutions to reduce hidden hunger

A diverse diet is an effective way to manage hidden hunger. It should include grains, meats, fruits and vegetables. However, a diverse diet can be expensive. Food fortification, which is the process of strengthening the staple foods with micronutrients, is an effective approach for improving the quality of life.

Biofortification can enhance micronutrient content in traditional foods. Like, vitamin A content can be increased in maize, sweet potato, while iron content can increase in pearl millet and beans. Zinc content can be boosted in wheat and rice through this fortification process.

Ensuring proper sanitation measures can also reduce the occurrence of worm infestations, and timely vaccination of children can protect them against common illnesses. These measures can increase their ability to absorb micronutrients better from foods.

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