Hidden hunger is defined as micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) deficiency. It is not malnutrition due to starvation. It is due to lack of overall quality of nutrients from foods that a person ingests during the day. This is also called micronutrient malnutrition. Hidden hunger is a greater threat to public health in developing countries. It exists in Sri Lanka as well. Some micronutrient deficiencies are common among Sri Lankan school children such as iron, zinc, folate, and vitamin A deficiency.
Iron is important for red blood cells as it contains hemoglobin, which transports oxygen to tissues in the body. Anemia is the advanced stage of iron deficiency. It occurs when the number of red blood cells in the body is below the normal rate. Anemia among children can impair health and development, impair immune system and reduce adult work performance. Moreover, anemic mothers are more likely to deliver premature babies and babies with low birth weight. Low birth weight (LBW) is defined by the World Health Organization as a birth weight of a live born infant of 2,499 g or less. LBW is closely associated with fetal and perinatal mortality and Morbidity, inhibited growth and cognitive development, and chronic diseases later in life.
Vitamin A deficiency is another common micronutrient deficiency observed among Sri Lankan children. Vitamin A deficiency also results in decreased immune function. And also a severe lack of Vitamin A can lead to night blindness. Night blindness is a condition of the eyes in which vision is normal in daylight but abnormally poor at night or in a dim light.
Zinc deficiency occurs due to the insufficient intake of Zinc in the diet and failure to absorb zinc by the body. Zinc plays a vital role in healing wounds and blood clotting. Zinc deficiency in children delays in physical and mental growth of children and delays sexual maturity. Early signs of this deficiency include loss of appetite, impaired immune function, hair loss, diarrhea, weight loss and delayed healing of wounds.
Folate deficiency is a low level of folic acid. Folic acid is necessary for children as it aids in the production and maintenance of new cells. It is especially important during periods of rapid cell division and growth such as in infancy. Isolated Folate deficiency is uncommon; it usually coexists with other nutrient deficiencies because of its strong association with poor diet and nutrient absorption disorders. Folate deficiency in children can produce discomfort and ulcers in the tongue, changes in the pigmentation of skin, hair and fingernails.
Sri Lankan children are at increased risk of micronutrient deficiencies such as Iron, Vitamin A, and Zinc. It is important that mothers should be aware of these deficiencies and take necessary precautions to ensure that their children are not at risk of such deficiencies. As the primary caregiver, mothers should make sure that their children receive balanced and nutritious meal that meets their growing demands.
Iron-deficiency anemia and other nutrient deficiencies can be prevented by ensuring that your child eats a well-balanced diet. As a parent, the nutritional needs of your baby or child are obviously a priority. The food a child eats in their early years can influence their dietary habits later in life, so it’s important to instill good habits and a healthy relationship with food from an early age. Ensure your child’s nutrient requirements are met by aiming for three balanced meals a day, each containing something a food from each food group with up to two healthy snacks. Get into the habit of trying different types of protein with each meal and a couple of different vegetables
In the first six months, babies receive all their nutritional requirements from a milk-based diet. Infant formula is the only alternative to breastfeeding for feeding babies below six months of age. The food groups that make balanced diet are protein foods like fish, meat and eggs, starchy foods supplying carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables and milk and dairy foods.
Proteins are essential for a number of important functions including growth, brain development and healthy bones. Animal proteins such as lean meat, fish, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese contain all 9 essential amino acids and are considered the most important for growth. Plant proteins such as beans and pulses are incomplete proteins and need to be combined to achieve the full spectrum of amino acids. Children need a source of carbohydrate in each meal. Aiming for five portions of fruit and vegetables is a good starting point for children. An easy guide is that a portion of fruit or veg is the amount that fits in the palm of your child’s hand.
Children gain a lot of nourishment from dairy foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese. These foods can provide the body with easily absorbed calcium as well as vitamins A and B12, protein and other vitamins and minerals. Fat needs to grow and develop. Fats are also needed to aid the absorption of certain vitamins including vitamins A, D, E and K. There should be some fats which are essential in your child’s diet for a healthy immune system and for normal brain function. These omega-3 fats are found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and their oils. Smoothies and juices can be a great way to get children to top up vitamin C and folate intake, both are important vitamins for the function of the immune system, energy production and for iron absorption, so it can prevent anemia.