What is Hidden Hunger?

In the simplest of terms, hidden hunger is nothing but the lack of vitamins and minerals in your body. These vitamins and minerals, collectively grouped as micronutrients, are vital towards the proper development and growth of children, and in facilitating normal physical and mental functions in adults.

When an individual is hungry, their first reaction is to eat just about anything they can get their hands on. In today’s world, this translates into gorging on junk food and other fatty snacks. The problem is that irrespective of consuming small or huge quantities of such foods, the body still remains hungry, i.e., is still starved of vital micronutrients like iron, iodine, calcium, zinc vitamin A and B-complex vitamins. So, even if these foods give you a feeling of being full, your body is still lacking in micronutrients, thus leading to malnutrition eventually.

Hidden hunger, also known as micronutrient deficiency, is especially a major health hazard in developing countries. According to a report published by FOA in 2013, hidden hunger affects more than 2 billion individuals, or one in three people, globally.

Most people suffering from this ailment, especially in developing countries, have diets that are seriously deficient in micronutrients. These people consume copious amounts of staple food grains such as rice, wheat and maize, which are high on fiber and calories, but seriously lacking in micronutrients. Being poor, they cannot afford to incorporate micronutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables and meat products into their daily diets.

Micronutrient deficiency is not restricted to developing countries only. It is becoming a crisis with people belonging to the higher economic strata of society too. This is because of quantitative consumption of food rather than qualitative consumption amongst these people. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), nearly 36% of all urban women in India suffer from iron deficiency. This statistic may give you an idea about the severity of this global problem.

Effects of Hidden Hunger

More often than not, the effects of hidden hunger are actually ‘hidden’. People afflicted by hidden hunger may look perfectly fine and healthy on the surface, but actually suffer from extreme malfunctions in their health and general well-being. For instance, children may have stunted development, poor night vision, and may be highly susceptible to contracting diseases. In childhood, the effects can be especially devastating from conception up to the age of two. Children may have extremely serious problems with their cognitive and physical development. Adults may also succumb to fatigue and illness easily. Hidden hunger leads to various illnesses, blindness, impaired cognitive and physical development and even premature death. Iron deficiency leads to low immunity, hair fall and greying if hair. Lack of iodine in the body leads to forgetfulness, difficulty in concentrating and loss of appetite. Calcium deficiency results in brittle bones. Only a small trace of zinc is required by our body, but the lack of it results in improper coordination between the brain and the nervous system. Deficiency of vitamin A can cause skin allergies, infections and poor eyesight. Lack of vitamin B12 in the body causes improper hemoglobin synthesis.

Apart from these medical ramifications, hidden hunger also curtails socio-economic development, especially in developing countries.

Dealing with Hidden Hunger

Micronutrients can be easily found in common foods around us. The problem is that we don’t know what these foods are, or hardly eat them. Here is a list of the steps one can take when it comes to dealing with hidden hunger:

  • Have at least 3 servings of varied fruits daily.
  • Go for simple recipes that involve baking, grilling and steaming rather than frying to make sure that the nutrients are preserved.
  • Snack on dry fruits like almonds, pistachios and walnuts instead of opting for calorie-laden fast foods.
  • Always opt for fortified foods instead of non-fortified ones as they contain added minerals and have higher nutritional values.
  • If the situation is severe, you may consider taking vitamin supplements (after consulting your doctor), and drink lots of water to facilitate the movement of these vitamins in your body.
  • Try consuming varied dishes and cuisines to help broaden the range of nutrients you ingest.

Following is a table to help you identify the various nutrients, their common sources and the daily required amount:

The Way Ahead

Ultimately, a lot of interventions will be needed to solve the pressing problem of hidden hunger. It will require a comprehensive approach at the national and international levels. On our part, all we can do is make sure that we eat healthy foods and stay away from junk food and other unhealthy preparations.

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