[‘Hidden hunger’ due to micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) deficiency does not produce hunger as we know it. You might not feel it in the belly, but it strikes at the core of your health and vitality. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies impose a significant burden on the affected persons and societies, both in terms of health costs and negative impacts in lost human capital and reduced economic productivity. Hidden hunger impairs physical growth and learning, limits productivity, perpetuates poverty in a continuous cycle, and ultimately stalls economic development.]


Sustainable Agriculture and Hunger Eradication (SAHE) Foundation, in commemoration of this year’s World Hunger Day, today May 28, 2022, highlights, for the education of the general public, the negative correlation between hidden hunger and national economic development. Hidden hunger, also known as micronutrient deficiencies, afflicts more than 2 billion individuals, or one in three people, globally (FAO 2013). Its devastating effects include mental impairment, poor health, low productivity, and even death. On children’s health and survival, its adverse effects are particularly acute, especially within the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, from conception to the age of two. This often results in serious physical and cognitive consequences affecting the child’s well-being and development. Beyond its effects on human health, and also a consequence of the same, hidden hunger limits socio-economic development, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

In order to fully appreciate all the nuances of hidden hunger, it is important to understand the differences between Hunger, Malnutrition, Under-nutrition, Over-nutrition, and Micronutrient Deficiency. Hunger generally refers to any form of distress related to lack of food, while Malnutrition is an abnormal physiological condition, typically due to eating the wrong amount and/or kinds of foods. It encompasses under-nutrition and over-nutrition. Undernutrition refers to deficiencies in energy, protein, and/or micronutrients, while over-nutrition is defined as the overconsumption of nutrients and food to the point at which health is adversely affected, often leading to obesity and its attendant health conditions.

Micronutrient deficiency on the other hand is a lack of essential vitamins and minerals required in small amounts by the body for proper growth and development. This is what is termed ‘Hidden Hunger. The proper management of hidden hunger is so critical because, though the body in small amounts requires these vitamins and minerals, they are essential, necessary, fundamental, and indispensable for proper growth and development.

The term ‘Hidden Hunger’

Hidden hunger is a form of under-nutrition. It occurs when the intake and absorption of vitamins and minerals (such as zinc, iodine, and iron) are too low to sustain good health and development, as well as normal physical and mental functions of the body. Causes of hidden hunger include any or a combination of the following: poor diet, increased micronutrient needs during certain life stages such as pregnancy and lactation, and health problems such as diseases, infections, or parasites. Clinical signs of hidden hunger, such as night blindness resulting from vitamin A deficiency and goiter from inadequate iodine intake are visible once deficiencies become severe, however, the health and development of a much larger share of the population is affected by less obvious “invisible” effects of lack of other essential micronutrients. That is why micronutrient deficiencies are often referred to as Hidden Hunger.


The Hidden Hunger Crisis

More than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from hidden hunger, more than double the 805 million people who do not have enough calories to eat (FAO, IFAD, and WFP 2014). Much of Africa, south of the Sahara, and the South Asian subcontinent are hotspots where the prevalence of hidden hunger is high. Currently, the nature of the malnutrition burden facing the world is increasingly complex. Developing countries are moving from traditional diets based on minimally processed foods to highly processed, energy-dense, micronutrient-poor foods, and drinks, which lead to obesity and diet-related chronic diseases. With this nutrition transition, many developing countries face a phenomenon known as the “triple burden” of malnutrition—undernourishment, micronutrient deficiencies, and obesity (Pinstrup-Andersen 2007). In higher income, more urbanized countries, hidden hunger can coexist with overweight/obesity when a person consumes too much dietary energy from macronutrients such as fats and carbohydrates (Guralnik et al. 2004). While it may seem paradoxical, an obese child can suffer from hidden hunger.


Micronutrient deficiencies cause an estimated 1.1 million of the 3.1 million child deaths that occur each year as a result of under-nutrition (Black et al. 2013; Black et al. 2008). Vitamin A and zinc deficiencies adversely affect child health and survival by weakening the immune system. Lack of zinc impairs growth and can lead to stunting in children. Iodine and iron deficits prevent children from reaching their physical and intellectual potential (Allen 2001). Women and children have greater needs for micronutrients (Darnton-Hill et al. 2005). The nutritional status of women around the time of conception and during pregnancy has long-term effects on fetal growth and development. Nearly 18 million babies are born with brain damage due to iodine deficiency each year. Severe anemia contributes to the death of 50,000 women in childbirth each year. In addition, iron deficiency saps the energy of 40 percent of women in the developing world (UNSCN 2005; Micronutrient Initiative 2014).

Recent conflicts in centers of global food production resulting in a snag in large-scale food supply exacerbate the already complex and grim situation. This re-echoes the urgent need for interventions to fight hidden hunger and improve nutrition outcomes. Interventions focused on women, infants, and young children achieve high rates of return by improving health, nutritional status, and cognition later in life (Hoddinott et al. 2013).


Causes of Hidden Hunger

  1. Poor diet: This is a common source of vitamin and mineral deficiency. Diets based mostly on staple crops, such as maize, wheat, rice, and cassava, which provide a large share of energy but relatively low amounts of essential vitamins and minerals, frequently result in a hidden hunger. Victims of hidden hunger may not understand the importance of a balanced, nutritious diet. Nor may they be able to afford or access a wide range of nutritious foods such as animal-source foods (meat, eggs, fish, and dairy), fruits, or vegetables, especially in developing countries. In non-emergency situations, poverty is a major factor that limits access to adequate nutritious foods. When food prices rise, consumers tend to continue to eat staple foods while cutting their intake of nonstaple foods that tend to be richer in micronutrients (Bouis, Eozenou, and Rahman 2011).
  2. Impaired Absorption or Use of Nutrients: Another source of micronutrient deficiencies is impaired absorption or use of nutrients. Absorption may be impaired by infection or a parasite that can also lead to the loss of or increased need for many micronutrients. Infections and parasites can spread easily in unhealthy environments with poor water, sanitation, and hygiene conditions. Unsafe food handling and feeding practices can further exacerbate nutrient losses.


Effect of Hidden Hunger on National Economic Development

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies impose a significant burden on the affected persons and societies, both in terms of health costs and negative impacts in lost human capital and reduced economic productivity. Hidden hunger impairs physical growth and learning, limits productivity, and ultimately perpetuates poverty in a continuous cycle.

Countries, where a large share of the population is affected by vitamin and mineral deficiencies, cannot realize their economic potential (Stein 2013; Stein and Qaim 2007). Poor people disproportionately suffer from micronutrient deficiencies and bear the long-term negative effects that constrain socio-economic development (Darnton-Hill et al. 2005). The economic costs of all forms of micronutrient deficiency can be considerable, cutting gross domestic product by 0.7–2 percent in most developing countries (Micronutrient Initiative and UNICEF 2004).


Solutions to Hidden Hunger

Some interventions adopted to address the hidden hunger challenge include:

  1. Bio-fortification: Bio-fortification, a relatively new intervention, involves breeding food crops, using conventional or transgenic methods, to increase their micronutrient content.
  2. Commercial food fortification: Commercial food fortification, which adds trace amounts of micronutrients to staple foods or condiments during processing, helps consumers get the recommended levels of micronutrients.
  • Supplementation: Vitamin A supplementation is one of the most cost-effective interventions for improving child survival. Supplementation for other micronutrient deficiencies is less common.
  1. Dietary Diversification: This is the most effective way to sustainably prevent hidden hunger (Thompson and Amoroso 2010). Dietary diversification guarantees a healthy diet that contains a balanced and adequate combination of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and protein); essential micronutrients; and other food-based substances such as dietary fiber. A variety of cereals, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and animal-source foods provides adequate nutrition for most people, although certain populations, such as pregnant women, may need supplements (FAO 2013).

Effective ways to promote dietary diversity involve food-based strategies, such as home gardening and educating people on better infant and young child feeding practices, food preparation, and storage/preservation methods to prevent nutrient loss.



Our Collective Responsibility

A mix of interventions is needed to solve the complex problem of hidden hunger and to sustainably tackling the underlying causes will require a multisectoral approach at the national and international levels. National governments must take a cohesive approach to confront hidden hunger, otherwise, it will not get the attention it deserves. Only when all ministries, including agriculture, health, and education, and those handling regulatory affairs, form a united front to improve food and nutrition security will governments truly have a chance of succeeding.


Other essential components to fight hidden hunger include:

  1. Diversification of Diet: It ensures the consumption of a healthy diet with a balanced and adequate combination of macronutrients, essential micronutrients; and other food-based substances such as dietary fiber.
  2. Promotion of sustainable agriculture: It guarantees the availability of nutrient rich foods for consumption.
  • Social protection: This gives poor people access to nutritious food and shields them from price spikes.
  1. Behaviour-change: Promotion of communication that aims to improve women’s, infants, and young children’s utilization of health services, clean water, good sanitation, and hygiene to protect them from diseases that interfere with nutrient absorption.
  2. Women Empowerment: A focus on empowering women by increasing access to education.


Eradicating hidden hunger might not be easy because of a plethora of challenges, but if enough resources are allocated, the right policies developed, and the right investments made, these challenges can be overcome (Fan and Polman 2014). Much still needs to be done to ensure that people around the world gain access to the nutrient-rich foods they and their communities need to combat poor health and reach their full development potential for optimum national economic development.


(2014 Global Hunger Index, The Challenge of Hidden Hunger [Web Page].

URL https://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/ghi/2014/index.html [accessed 26 May 2022)

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