Lurking in over 2 billion people worldwide lies a sneaky micronutrient deficiency that could severely impair lives, called "hidden hunger." When suffering from hidden hunger, you may not experience even a moment of hunger, but your body is still "hungry."
Hidden hunger isn't about suddenly eating through an entire bag of cookies; it's about whether or not your food choices are giving you enough nutrients. Eating for "fuel" and "health" matters what you're eating, not just how much. You wouldn't fill your car with water when it needs petrol, and you shouldn't fill up on just Marie biscuits when you need a balanced diet of multiple essential micronutrients. The same thing will happen to your body as it does to the car – it will stop working.
Many people suffer from hidden hunger - to the point where it's considered a global issue. According to the World Hunger Index, about one-third of the worldwide population doesn't get their required nutrients. Recent statistics show that in 2019, UNICEF reported in Adolescents, Diets, and Nutrition: Growing Well in a Changing World that 80% of Indian adolescents suffer from hidden hunger. And, it's not just rural communities with food shortages that experience hidden hunger. The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation says that 1 in every 9 Americans suffers from hidden hunger, and upwards of 50% of American children don't get their required daily nutrient intake.
The cause of hidden hunger can be many things – from limited food choices, shortages, infections, and intestinal parasites to consuming highly processed nutrient-deficient convenience foods.
It's everywhere, affecting every country, and can come from multiple sources, but what is it?
Hidden hunger, according to the study The Global Challenge of Hidden Hunger – Perspectives from the Field, tells us that: "multiple nutrient deficiencies, particularly iron, zinc, iodine, and Vitamin A…which can occur without a deficit in energy intake as a result of consuming an energy-dense, but nutrient-poor diet". Some micronutrient deficiencies can make our skin dry, lips appear chapped, a little sluggish or cloudy, and not constitute a global crisis. So why are some vitamin deficiencies worse than others, such as Vitamin A or iodine?
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that the "main underlying cause of vitamin A deficiency as a public health problem is a diet that is chronically insufficient in vitamin A that can lead to lower body stores and fail to meet physiologic needs." It can also "lead to preventable childhood blindness, anaemia, and weakened host resistance to infection, which can increase the severity of infectious diseases and risk of death."
On the other hand, a chronic deficiency in iodine when pregnant, for example, can impair the growth and neurodevelopment of the child, resulting in a higher risk of infant mortality, and a deficiency found in children can impair motor function. Imagine how this translates as the child grows into adulthood.
It's not surprising, then, that the WHO refers to the chronic deficiency in Vitamin A as a "public health problem" – not just a personal problem. So how does hidden hunger affect everyone?
Imagine communities forced into certain dietary habits due to a lack of food choices or shortages – such as those who primarily rely on rice or maize to make up the bulk of their diet. The lack of neurodevelopment may impact the entire community of children and the health of adolescents and adults.
Or, imagine a busy professional working in the heart of any global metropolis. Instead of well-balanced meals, they satisfy their hunger with endless bags of chips and deep-fried foods that pack easily into their meeting schedules. In this case, suffering from hidden hunger is not due to lack of choice but to the environment, habits, food availability, and time management. There are millions of these kinds of workers worldwide, individually contributing to the global issue of hunger.
To understand the broader impact of hidden hunger, a research paper published in 2008 titled Micronutrient Malnutrition in India, Let Us Say 'No' to it Now says "the loss due to micronutrient deficiency costs India 1 per cent of its GDP. This amounts to a loss of Rs. 27,720 crores per annum in productivity, illness, increased health care costs, and death." It's no longer a personal problem, it's a collective concern as countries navigate their involvement on the world stage.
Massive global efforts are underway to help minimise hidden hunger. The 2014 World Hunger Index has reported that direct supplementation of iron, folic acid, zinc, and supplementation of vitamin A has been immensely beneficial. Also, an effort to deworm children and pregnant women has reduced their risk of hidden hunger by ensuring intestinal parasites don't limit their ability to absorb nutrients in their digestive systems.
The sheer size of the problem, the locations it impacts, and the concerted global effort it is taking the tackle can sometimes make us feel powerless on a personal level to combat it or at lead to avoid it.
However, it's essential to find ways to address hidden hunger because the knock-on effects of suboptimal health will become normalised for many people if not caught and treated soon enough in the world. Everyone deserves to feel their best, operate at their best, and view their future in the brightest possible colours.
Therefore, it's an excellent opportunity to take stock of your health and make improvements.
Also read: Do we need to supplement our gut microbiome?
When it comes to your diet, try to unstick yourself from eating habits that cause you to repeat foods. For example, instead of constantly having rice or wheat, try rotating your grain sources or purchasing ones that have been fortified with vitamins or minerals. Secondly, eat the rainbow. Every colour of fruit and vegetable has a unique vitamin and mineral makeup that often depends on the colour. Instead of aiming to eat your 5 a day – try to eat 5 colours a day rather (white, green, red, orange, and purple). This will force you out of old eating habits that may encourage nutrient deficiencies. And finally, ask your primary care physician for their advice on whether or not you should do a blood test to rule out any micronutrient deficiencies.