• Research by GAIN suggests the number of people affected by "hidden hunger" is far larger than previously thought. Image: Getty
    Research by GAIN suggests the number of people affected by "hidden hunger" is far larger than previously thought. Image: Getty

New research has found the number of people suffering from vitamin and mineral deficiencies (“hidden hunger”), is far higher than previously thought. 

The new findings indicate that 1 in 2 preschool-aged children and 2 in 3 women of reproductive age worldwide are affected by hidden hunger. Women and young children make up just one third of the total population worldwide—suggesting the number is far larger once school-age children, adolescents, men, and older adults are included.

The research, Micronutrient deficiencies among preschool-aged children and women of reproductive age worldwide, was a collaborative project led by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), through the USAID Advancing Nutrition project, along with a team of global micronutrient experts, including an Advisory Panel brought together by the Micronutrient Forum. Each step of the analysis was vetted through a formal process and then the paper went through rigorous peer review in a leading global health journal.

Food and Nutrition Division at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) director Lynnette Neufeld said diets that don’t provide the right levels of vitamins and minerals can compromise immune systems, impair cognition and school performance, decrease work productivity, and may contribute to risks of non-communicable diseases such as heart problems.

“This is a widespread problem, impacting individuals, families and communities everywhere in the world, although particularly in lower income countries,” said Neufeld.

Micronutrient deficiencies are highest in lower income countries because diets often lack a diversity of nutrient-rich foods and tend to rely on a large share of calories from rice, wheat, maize or similar staple foods.

Nine in 10 women in several countries in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are deficient. However, deficiencies are surprisingly high even in high-income countries. In the US and the UK, for example, between one third and one half of women of reproductive age are deficient in one or more micronutrients.

In high-income countries this is likely the result of diets high in processed but micronutrient poor foods, rather than reliance on a single staple as in many lower income countries.

Micronutrient Forum executive director, Saskia Osendarp said there were ‘very clear’ solutions.

“We need to ensure everyone has access to a variety of micronutrient dense foods, including animal-source foods, dark green leafy vegetables and beans, lentils or peas. Food fortification can help make up the difference when healthy diets are unaffordable or accessible. Health programs can provide supplements to those with extra needs, such as pregnant women and malnourished children,” said Osendarp.

The issues are now exacerbated by the long-term impact of climate change, the lasting damage to supply chains caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and the imminent economic downturn, all coming together to create major challenges.

Some solutions tabled in the research include developing resilient crops. Accessibility and affordability can be addressed by prioritizing productivity and diversity of a variety of nutritious crops and livestock, developing crops that are more nutritious and drought-resilient (“biofortification”), reducing trade and transportation costs and improving markets. Those in situations of vulnerability often require direct assistance through social protection programmes such as cash transfers and subsidies for micronutrient dense foods.

GAIN’s executive director Lawrence Haddad said the new research was a ‘game changer’.

“Hidden hunger is likely to affect nearly half the people on the planet, not a quarter as we had previously and rather complacently assumed. In particular, our failure to nourish the youngest will undermine public health and haunt us socially, economically, environmentally and politically down the generations.

“All corners of society, led by governments, need to tackle the burden of hidden hunger, via all the channels available. Personally, these findings throw down the gauntlet to GAIN and to all organisations working for a world without malnutrition. We all have to work together and rise to the challenge,” said Haddad.

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