A micronutrient is an element in food (a nutrient), which is required by humans and other living things throughout life in very small quantities. Micronutrients support a whole range of functions and the body cannot function well without them. A micronutrient deficiency is when a person is not getting these nutrients or not getting them in enough quantities to develop and function well. The three most widespread micronutrient deficiencies are in iron, iodine, and vitamin A; but there are others that cause serious problems from example: vitamin C, vitamin D and folic acid. Micronutrient deficiencies are invisible. Many children suffer from them but it’s hard to see if a child is deficient.
The fight against nutritional deficiencies needs to be matched to the local context. Four strategies are needed:
- Increase the intake of foods containing the micronutrients needed for health by eating nutritious foods, promoting breastfeeding for infants, taking supplements and eating foods fortified with vitamins and minerals where necessary (such as iodized salt, oil or bread).
- Control diseases through immunisation, getting de-wormed regularly, wearing shoes to prevent hookworm infection, using Long Lasting Insecticide Treated Nets (mosquito nets) to prevent malaria, washing hands with soap at key times and using a latrine to avoid diarrhoea and worm infections.
- Improve the health of the environment by ensuring access to clean safe water, latrines, and hand-washing facilities.
- Eat a balanced diet.
A simple way to make sure you and your family are getting the micronutrients you need is to think about eating a colourful diet or a ‘rainbow plate’.
Three micronutrient deficiencies
Iron is a mineral that is found in some foods and is necessary for us to be healthy. It helps keep our blood healthy by working to create red bloods cells. If we do not have enough iron we develop anaemia. Iron-deficiency anaemia is the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world. It was estimated that 53% of school age children have iron-deficiency anaemia.
Anaemia means we are lacking important elements that blood is made of. People with anaemia do not have enough red blood cells. The signs and symptoms of anaemia include: feeling tired; no desire to work, study or play; paleness of the tongue and inside the lips; dizziness and headaches; loss of appetite and nausea; and feeling breathless or having a fast heartbeat, even with light work. Anaemia makes it hard for children to learn and they may learn more slowly. Anaemia increases the chance that a pregnant woman will die in childbirth. Anaemia damages the growth and development of young children.
Some chemicals, like the ones found in tea, coffee, tobacco, and alcohol, make it hard for our body to use iron if we take them at the same time as we take foods with iron. Worms, especially hookworm or schistosomiasis, cause blood and iron loss.
To prevent anaemia, eat foods rich in iron and vitamin C. The best iron-rich foods are the meat of animals, birds and fish (especially liver) and dark green leafy vegetables. There is some iron in cereals (especially porridges), legumes and seeds. Vitamin C, found in fruits like oranges, helps the body absorb iron. Wear shoes or sandals to prevent hookworm infestation. Use the latrine, drink safe water and wash your hands regularly with soap to prevent disease transmission. You can also take de-worming tablets every six months, or as recommended by a health worker. You should consult the health centre if symptoms of anaemia are observed.
Vitamin A is essential to keeping our eyes and vision healthy. Vitamin A makes skin strong and healthy. It prevents problems like diarrhoea, measles and malnutrition. Vitamin A deficiency can cause sight problems and over a long time can even lead to blindness. In children, it weakens the body’s ability to get over illnesses like diarrhoea and measles. In pregnant women it causes night blindness and may increase the risk of maternal mortality.
Vitamin A is in meat, fish, eggs, butter, cheese, red palm oil, dark green leafy vegetables, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and many other yellow-fleshed foods. When we have access to vitamin A rich food, we can eat a lot of it to store it. Artificial high-dose vitamin A supplements come in a capsule or syrup. In a few countries, vitamin A has been added to cooking oils, sugar, wheat and flours, milk and dairy products and other foods. Vitamin A supplements can be given every four to six months to children aged six-months to five-years and even through primary school. Children with measles should receive vitamin A on the day of diagnosis, a dose on the following day and another dose at least two weeks later. Foods rich in vitamin A can be grown and eaten regularly and should be eaten with a little fat (e.g. oil) as this helps the body absorb the vitamin A.
Iodine is very important for the development and strength of the brain and the nerves. Iodine is found in food grown in the soil. Soil can lack iodine in some inland areas, especially where there are high mountains or frequent floods. If animals graze on plants grown in iodine rich soil, their meat will contain iodine. Foods grown in iodine rich soil will contain iodine and foods that come from the sea (fish, seashells, sea food) are also high in iodine. Iodine is often added to salt – check the packet.
After years of iodine deficiency, people develop a goitre (a lump below the jaw on the throat). Iodine deficiency makes a person feel the cold easily and it slows down the body and the mind. It can cause mental defects. It can make skin feel dry. In a pregnant woman it can cause miscarriage, low birth weight babies or babies with disabilities.
To prevent iodine deficiencies, eat food containing iodine or used iodized salt. Iodized salt must be kept in a dark, dry, cool place to keep the iodine active.
Find items in the local community that are red, green and yellow. This could be food items such as: tomato, mango/yellow fleshed sweet potato/carrot and green leafy vegetables/moringa. Also bring in examples of cereals or salt that is ‘fortified’ (this means it has had micronutrients added e.g. iodine in salt).