While India has a huge advantage in the form of its youth population being more than half of the entire population, we are far from reaping the benefits of this demographic dividend. Along with education, awareness, skill training and employment, a huge, often ignored factor that hinders the country from utilizing the potential of a young population is the prevalence of “hidden hunger” among India’s adolescents.
Hidden hunger is a deficiency of one or more micronutrients such as iron, folate, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. It is estimated that more than two billion people suffer from hidden hunger globally. Despite being highlighted as one the most cost-effective investments for human development, progress on addressing micronutrient deficiencies has been slowing. These deficiencies are the result of a combination of a monotonous cereal-dominated diet lacking in diversity, and overall insufficient food intake.
In India, over 80 per cent adolescents suffer from hidden hunger, according to UNICEF’s 2019 report ‘Adolescents, Diets and Nutrition: Growing Well in a Changing World’. Such deficiencies during a young age can lead to a range of severe implications including increased mortality, morbidity, physical, and mental defects. It is in concurrence that India has one of the highest rates of childhood stunting and wasting in the world, occurring in approximately one-third of all children.
The report also observed that with growing incomes and increased spending on food, Indians were moving away from traditional diets to a dietary lifestyle majorly consisting of processed and fast-foods which are high on calories and low in micro-nutrients. This trend is particularly visible in India’s youth population. As such, the country faces a triple threat: undernourishment, micronutrient deficiencies, and obesity.
There is a higher incident of adolescent girls suffering from micronutrient deficiency in comparison to boys of the same age. This is doubled up by the fact that anaemia affects 40 per cent of adolescent girls in India compared to 18 per cent of boys, and the trend continues as they get older. This in turn has an adverse effect on their health when they bear children, and the children too are more likely to be undernourished. This vicious cycle leads to yet another generation bearing the burden of hidden hunger in the country.
To ensure the country’s health and progress, there is an urgent need to address the issue of hidden hunger through a combination of intervention strategies. These include dietary diversification of micronutrient-rich produce (including fruits and vegetables, pulses, and animal-based products), fortification of commercial foods, bio-fortification of agricultural produce, supplementation and behavioral change.
As per the Sustainable Development Goals, India is committed to end all forms of hunger by 2030. However, like for most other development parameters, for hidden hunger too, the progress has been impeded because of the current pandemic. That said, despite the pandemic, such crucial issues have to reprioritized as they affect not just our present, but also leave an indelible mark on our future as a nation.
To know more about Smile Foundation’s intervention on tackling the problem of nutrition visit https://www.smilefoundationindia.org/plate-half-full/