What is 'hidden hunger' and how can it cause anaemia?

Eating well isn't simply a case of feeling satisfied, but also getting the right nutrients.
Eating well isn't simply a case of feeling satisfied, but also getting the right nutrients.

It’s a fact that good nutrition is the cornerstone of good health. Our bodies need crucial vitamins and minerals in order to function as it should. When a vital nutrient is missing, organs might not work as they should, and this could impact your health.

But what if you follow a healthy diet and you think you have all your bases covered? You can still be lacking important nutrients without being aware of it.

Hidden hunger is a condition that is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a lack of crucial vitamins and minerals.

Hidden hunger occurs when the food people eat, even though it might fill their stomachs, does not meet their nutritional requirements. This indicates that the food is deficient in nutrients crucial for growth, development and the optimal functioning of the body.

An estimated 2 billion people worldwide suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies, of which iron deficiency is the most prevalent.

According to the WHO, iron deficiency is the cause of 30% of the world’s anaemia cases, mostly in low-income, underdeveloped countries.

Hidden hunger can, however, occur in anyone who doesn’t follow a well-balanced diet, even when you think you have it covered.

Signs of hidden hunger

Many people believe that fighting hunger only involves relieving hunger pangs. But proper feeding also entails ensuring that you and your children obtain all the crucial vitamins and minerals you need. 

It can be difficult to diagnose hidden hunger, as there might not be any visible signs of deficiency. The most prevalent deficiencies worldwide are vitamin A, iodine and iron. Over time, deficiencies in these nutrients can lead to a number of serious health problems such as visual impairment, a supressed immune system and anaemia.  

These deficiencies are a big problem in developing countries and lower-income households around the world, especially among children.

Ion deficiency in particular can happen to anyone. Here are subtle, common signs that you might have a iron deficiency that could lead to anaemia:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Pale skin
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Shortness of breath during exercise
  • A poor appetite
  • A sore tongue and difficulty swallowing 

It is, however, not only iron that can affect the formation of red blood cells. Vitamin B12 and folate are also nutrients that affect the development of your red blood cells. When you don’t get enough of these, you may experience signs such as:

  • A lack of concentration
  • Pins and needles in the hands and feet
  • Headaches
  • Depression

How to get enough nutrients for healthy red blood cells:

  • Include sources of iron, such as lean red meat, dark green vegetables, legumes and nuts and seeds in your diet.
  • Keep an eye out for severe fatigue in children and serve iron-rich food as soon as your infant is old enough for solids. 
  • Increase iron absorption by eating more vitamin C. This can be found in fresh fruit and vegetables, so include plenty of those in your diet.
  • Avoid drinking coffee or tea with meals as this can hinder iron absorption.
  • Don’t overcook vegetables, as this can leach out iron.
  • Speak to your doctor or a nutritionist if you are changing your diet or have a food allergy to ensure that you include all the important nutrients.
  • If you suspect a nutritional deficiency or anaemia in yourself or your child, have blood tests done, and take any supplements as advised by your doctor.

Image credit: iStock 

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