Common Micronutrient Deficiencies Around the World
When it comes to nutrition, one phrase pops up time and time again: eat your fruits and veggies. This bit of conventional wisdom seems simple, but it’s actually a great piece of advice. Fruits and vegetables, it turns out, are rich in vitamins and minerals also known as micronutrients.
What Are Micronutrients?
The nutrients your body needs are classified as either macronutrients or micronutrients. Macronutrients are the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that give you energy and make up the building blocks of many of your body’s structures. Micronutrients include all the essential vitamins and minerals you eat that play a vital role in your health—everything from bone development to immune system function.
Needless to say, it’s important to have sufficient quantities of various micronutrients in your diet. If your body isn’t getting enough of a particular micronutrient, you have a dietary deficiency. Too little iron, for instance, causes an iron deficiency. Micronutrient deficiencies (MNDs) can have devastating effects on your health when left unaddressed. And unfortunately, they are incredibly common around the world. This article breaks down some of the most common micronutrient deficiencies in various regions around the globe, explores the causes of these MNDs, and offers some strategies to address micronutrient deficiencies in your own diet.
Common Micronutrient Deficiencies Around the Globe
Although micronutrient deficiencies can—and do—affect anyone, they pose the biggest threat to infants, children, and pregnant women. And much of the data gathered from various global studies focuses on these three areas. Most of the time, however, it’s safe to assume the dietary trends presented in these groups also reflect the trends of the region’s general population.
Let’s look at some of the most common MNDs around the world:
Iron: Roughly two billion people do not have enough iron in their diet, making iron deficiency the most common micronutrient deficiency across the globe. This can lead to anemia and may affect the regular function of the immune and endocrine systems.
Iron deficiency is most common in Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East. Globally, the rates of anemia—an indicator of iron deficiency—have been dropping amongst pregnant women and children for the last 20 years.
Iodine: When it comes to growth and development, there’s nothing as important as the thyroid. And for your thyroid to function properly, your body needs iodine—a mineral that does not naturally occur in many foods. To combat iodine deficiency, many countries have iodine fortified table salt. But more on that later!
Although most countries have taken steps to combat iodine deficiency, it remains a pressing global issue. Almost a third of all school-aged children don’t get enough iodine. This deficiency is most common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Though the global rate for iodine deficiency has been on a downward trend for the last 30 years thanks to fortification efforts.
Vitamin A: A jack-of-all-trades, this vital vitamin plays a role in vision, bone development, and immune function. Vitamin A deficiency, sometimes called VAD, is linked to visual impairments (especially night blindness) and increased susceptibility to infection.
Vitamin A deficiency data shows VAD is most common among children in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), hundreds of millions of children are blind as a result of vitamin A deficiency—and half will die within a year of the onset of their blindness.
Zinc: As with most micronutrients, zinc’s role in the body is multifaceted. It aids immune function, DNA synthesis, childhood and adolescent growth and development, and more.
Zinc deficiency is thought to be one of the leading causes of nutrition-related deaths around the world. In developing nations, improper zinc intake has been tied to higher mortality rates from diarrhea, malaria, and respiratory infections. Additionally, zinc deficiency is associated with increased maternal and newborn mortality rates. It’s common in impoverished areas and is most prevalent in parts of Indonesia, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Folate: Vitamin B9 comes in many forms—collectively known as folate. While folate does occur naturally, more than 75 countries have started fortifying foods with a synthetic form known as folic acid. Functionally, folate and folic acid are identical.
Folate’s main role in the body is to help produce new cells, but it also plays an important part in fetal and newborn health in pregnant women. Folate deficiency in pregnant women increases the chances of premature birth, low birthweight, and neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
Causes of Micronutrient Deficiencies
The causes of MNDs vary, but there’s almost always a common denominator: poverty. Across the board, rates of micronutrient deficiencies are highest in low-income and developing nations. And within wealthier countries, micronutrient deficiencies are most common in impoverished communities.
This raises one big question: why is poverty tied to micronutrient intake? The answer is simple. Money affords people the ability to eat varied diets. Micronutrients occur naturally in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, animal products, and more. To obtain all the micronutrients you need, you should be eating a well-balanced, varied diet. In poorer areas, people often eat energy-dense foods with little nutritional variety. Over time, this leads to micronutrient deficiencies.
Some micronutrient deficiencies are caused by specific dietary choices. Anemia, as mentioned above, stems from an iron deficiency. Iron comes in two forms, heme and nonheme. The former is found in meats and fish, whereas the latter is found in plants. Heme is far easier for the body to process than nonheme—and a diet supplemented with meat and fish tends to give the body more iron than, say, a plant-based diet. This doesn’t mean vegetarians and vegans inherently have iron deficiency, but followers of these diets should consider taking an iron supplement.
Addressing Micronutrient Deficiencies: Individual and Collective Strategies
Micronutrient deficiencies exist on two levels: individual and global. The former focuses on your personal diet. How can you ensure you’re getting the micronutrients you need? The latter deals with global dietary trends. How can governments and other organizations implement changes to help address micronutrient deficiencies on a global scale? Naturally, the strategies associated with each level are very different.
MNDs on the Collective Level
For the past several decades, nearly every micronutrient deficiency discussed in this article has been on the decline globally. This is thanks largely to food fortification programs. Fortification is the process of adding a nutrient to a food that otherwise would not contain it. One common example is adding iodine to table salt, but many countries have started fortifying cereals and other staple foods with zinc, folate, and iron as well.
Because poverty is one of the driving factors behind malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, global efforts to combat MNDs are inevitably tied to poverty-reducing measures. Other strategies include increasing access to fresh produce and implementing nutrition education programs within at-risk communities.
MNDs on the Individual Level
Global nutrition takes time, cooperation, and resources. Focusing on your individual nutrition is far easier. The best way to get the right amount of essential micronutrients in your diet is to eat a wide variety of foods from the five food groups: dairy, grains, fruits, vegetables, and proteins.