I am nervous to even answer that question!
As parents, we try our best to ensure that our kids get the best nutrition. We cajole them to eat their veggies and fruits, make sure they eat at the right time, pack their school lunch boxes with tasty, but healthy food. In spite of all this, they are in grave danger of the risk of micronutrient deficiency. Is that shocking or disappointing?
The truth is, in the Global Hunger Index 2016, Indian ranked 97th out of 118 nations. Not a nice position to be in.
Micronutrient deficiency is also called hidden hunger and implies the lack of intake of crucial vitamins and minerals such as zinc, vitamin A and folate, all of which children need to grow mentally and physically healthy.
Look at these alarming facts: (Source)
- India is home to 184 million undernourished people, many of them children.
- On the global hidden hunger charts, prosperous India fares worse than sub-Saharan countries like Burkino Faso and the Congo.
- A recent study found that up to 95% could be at risk of inadequate micronutrient intake, with almost 70% at risk of having insufficient intake of four or more micronutrients. Maximum deficiencies were vitamin A, folate, vitamin b12 and iron.
- Hidden hunger increases a child’s risk for infection and impaired development. Malnutrition is not apparent, as the child may appear healthy, even though she may be silently suffering the negative impacts on health and well-being. The child may be stunted, have poor night vision or fall sick often.
- Among Indian children under five years of age, almost 40% are stunted, 60% suffer from anaemia, as a result of inadequate iron intake, which reduces vitality and impairs cognitive development.
- India is also home to more than 85% of all children in South Asia with xerophthalmia, the world’s leading preventable cause of blindness and an important indicator of vitamin A deficiency. Besides these issues, deficiencies of B group vitamins, zinc and vitamin D are also common.
- Low weight, poor child growth, malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies also impact the nation economically.
- Inadequate nutrient intake is rampant regardless of social status.
The good news is that the latest National Health Policy 2017 published by the Ministry of Health emphasizes the need to address the micronutrient deficiencies.
While initiatives are being planned at the Government level, it is imperative for parents to understand the role of micronutrients in their children’s health and take steps to ensure that they are eating a balanced diet that includes the right mix of cereals, legumes, fruits, vegetables and animal-source foods via home cooked healthy food. This is the most effective way to prevent micronutrient deficiency.
But first, let’s understand what are micronutrients, why they are essential, and how parents can make sure their children get the right amounts.
What are micronutrients and what is their role in nutrition?
We usually see a reference to micronutrients on the labels of products we buy and let’s admit it…we don’t pay much attention to them. There are two types of nutrients: macro- and micronutrients.
Micronutrients help the body’s vital organs, processes and systems to function properly and are required for healthy metabolism. They are like magic wands that help the body produce enzymes, hormones and other substances necessary for a child’s growth and development.
Vitamins and minerals are the two types of micronutrients. In tiny quantities, they play important roles in human development and well-being, including the regulation of metabolism, heartbeat, cellular pH, and bone density. When these tiny quantities are lacking, the consequences are severe.
Scientific studies have established that a micronutrient-rich diet not only provides for the growth and strength but also for the sharpness of your child’s physical and mental wellness. A diverse range of nutrient-dense foods is the perfect way for young children to get essential micronutrients in their diet.
To know which food items are the best source, here’s a chart you can refer to: Food sources for essential micronutrients with detailed supplemental tables.
The specific role of micronutrients
- Riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid play an active part in intermediary metabolism and maximize use of macronutrients to provide energy.
- Vitamins (A and E) have antioxidant properties, i.e. they minimize cellular damage to cells from metabolism.
- Vitamin A is vital for physical growth and mental development.
- Zinc and selenium are “helper molecules” assisting in metabolism, controlling enzyme activity or being a part of the enzyme.
- Zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium act as antioxidants to control metabolic damage to the body’s living cells.
- Iron and iodine help in optimal functioning of immune system, physical growth, and neuromotor development.
Ensuring a diet of essential micronutrients during childhood lays the foundation for the child’s healthy adulthood.
Because they develop gradually over time, micronutrient deficiencies are referred to as ‘hidden hunger’. The impact of this deficiency is often not noticed until irreversible damage has already occurred. A child may go to bed at night with a full tummy, but micronutrient deficiencies leave her body hungry for good nutrition and put her at risk for stunted growth, cognitive delays, weakened immunity and disease.
The most common micronutrient deficiencies are:
- Iodine deficiency is the main cause of preventable brain damage in children and this is triggered during foetal development and in the first few years of a child’s life.
- Vitamin A deficiency weakens the immune system and increases a child’s risk of infections like measles, and diarrhoeal illnesses.
- Iron deficiency can lead to anaemia, increasing the risk of haemorrhage and bacterial infection during childbirth.
- Zinc deficiency impairs immune function and increases risk of gastrointestinal infections. It is also a contributing factor in child deaths due to diarrhoea.
- Calcium, vitamin D, and folate deficiencies can lead to a number of health complications.
Infectious disease and micronutrient deficiencies aggravate one another in a vicious cycle. Infections drain the body of micronutrients at a time when it needs them the most. With limited stores to draw upon, the immune system weakens further and struggles to fight the infection.
Parents must educate themselves on the impact of nutrition on their children and be able to spot hidden hunger. Chubby does not mean healthy. While carb-rich foods like rice and roti may seem to fill their children’s tummy, they lack the essential micronutrients they need for optimum growth.
Points for parents
- Learn to notice the warning signs of iron deficiency ‒ loss of appetite, lethargy, breathlessness, to name a few, which are also strong indicators of other micronutrient deficiencies.
- Improve shopping habits.
- Feed children a diverse diet with a variety of cereals, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and animal-source foods.
- Look out for foods and drinks fortified with micronutrients.A study on semi-urban school children concluded that supplementation with a beverage fortified with micronutrients significantly improved height, weight and attention-concentration.
As parents, we are in a great positon to eliminate hidden hunger and help our children grow up healthy.
Let’s do it!