Essential nutrients — including vitamins, minerals, essential fats, and amino acids — also known as micronutrients and macronutrients — are necessary for life. Without them we would not be able to think, digest food, or even breathe! The best way to get these nutrients is through a well-balanced, diverse diet — yet 2 billion people around the world do not have access to a diverse diet and rely on staple foods. As a result, billions of people are under-nourished — lacking the critical nutrients they need to lead healthy lives.
While the global community has established targets around increasing 5 essential micronutrients – Vitamin A, Iron, Iodine, Folate, and Zinc – there is consensus that up to 15 micronutrients, as well as macronutrients, are necessary for complete health and development.
Check out the essential nutrients listed below to learn more about the important role they play in proper health and development.
Vitamin A plays an important role in our vision, bone growth and reproduction. It also helps us fight infections. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in children, with an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 new sufferers every year. Half of these children die within a year of becoming blind. Vitamin A deficiency also diminishes a child’s ability to fight infections, especially from diarrhea and measles.
Folate plays a key role in cell and tissue growth. It is especially important during periods of rapid cell growth, such as pregnancy and infancy. Both adults and children need folate to produce red blood cells. Moreover, folate helps prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord (e.g. spina bifida), increased risks of cardiovascular disease, cancer, as well as megaloblastic anemia. Ensuring pregnant mothers have enough folic acid in their diets can help prevent more than 225,000 cases of spina bifida. It can also prevent children from being born premature or with a low birth weight.
Iodine is essential for our development and growth, as it helps produce the hormones that regulate the thyroid gland. Ensuring pregnant women and young children have sufficient iodine in their diets is critical to a fetus’ brain development and helps prevent Cretinism (severe mental & physical retardation), as well as goiters (swelling of the thyroid gland).
Today, more than 18 million children are born with impaired mental abilities due to iodine deficiency and nearly 2 billion people have insufficient iodine in their diets, including one third of all school-age children. Studies have shown that populations low in iodine can have a 12.5-13.5% lower IQ.
Iron is essential in transporting oxygen throughout our body. It also helps support cell growth, cognitive development, a strong immune system and physical growth. According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency is the leading nutritional disorder in the world. As much as 80% of the world is iron deficient and 30% of people suffer from anemia, a severe form of iron deficiency.
Women of childbearing age, pregnant women, infants, toddlers and teenage girls are at the greatest risk of developing iron deficiency anemia, because due to rapid growth and/or menstruation they have the greatest need for iron. Iron deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk of infant mortality, maternal mortality and low birth weight. More than 130,000 women and children die each year because of iron deficiency.
Zinc performs many functions in the body, including healing wounds; tissue growth and repair; proper blood clotting; proper thyroid function; metabolizing proteins, carbohydrates, fats and alcohol; fetal development; and sperm production. Zinc has been shown to improve growth rates, while reducing incidences of diarrhea, pneumonia and other infectious diseases. However, more than 20% of the world’s population could be at risk for zinc deficiency.
B vitamins — such as thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6) and cobalamin (B12) -- perform a wide variety of functions in the body, including helping metabolism, cognitive development, cell formation and immune system strength. Vitamin B deficiencies are highly prevalent in many developing countries, especially where diets are low in animal products, fruits and vegetables. Vitamin B deficiencies are associated with both lower cognitive function and anemia; and include the diseases beriberi, and pellagra. Pregnant and lactating women, infants and children are most at risk for vitamin B deficiencies.
Vitamin C is abundant in fresh fruits and vegetables, an essential player in collagen formation and an important antioxidant. Vitamin C helps aid Iron absorption, so it should be used to help stimulate the effects of Iron supplementation. Severe vitamin C deficiency, known as scurvy, occurs in displaced populations who rely on food aid and do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In infants, Vitamin C deficiencies can result in poor bone mineralization (due to loss of collagen production), fatigue, muscular weakness and decreased ability to fight infections.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral found in our body and an integral part of our skeleton system. Apart from maintaining the strength and rigidity of our bones, calcium takes place in numerous metabolic processes such as blood clotting, muscle contraction, hormone and neurotransmitter release and glycogen metabolism to name a few. Calcium is especially important for growing children in order for adequate skeletal growth to occur. Children who do not obtain sufficient Calcium have a reduced bone density and an increased risk of osteoporosis in adulthood.
Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption, manages hormone secretion and metabolism, and also aids in cell differentiation. It can be obtained through our own synthesis occurring in the skin with the help of sunlight (80% of Vitamin D in body is produced this way), or from the diet (present in only a few foods). Vitamin D status is subject to geographic location. Countries above and below latitudes 40°N and 40°S do not have a sufficient amount of ultra-violet radiation during the winter months for adequate Vitamin D synthesis to occur. Without sufficient vitamin D, bones can become thin, brittle, or misshapen. Vitamin D prevents rickets in children, a disease resulting in soft bones and skeletal deformities. Together with calcium, vitamin D also helps protect older adults from osteoporosis.
Selenium helps to guard the body from oxidative stress, fight against infection and moderate cell growth and development. Extreme Selenium deficiency in children is called Kaschin-Beck disease; it affects their cartilage tissue and can result in joint pain and stunting. Fluoride guards against tooth decay. When Fluoride is ingested by children, it becomes incorporated into their growing teeth and acts as a protective barrier. Fluoride can be added to the public water supply, salt or milk as a public health measure to help reduce the risk of dental caries.
Essential fatty acids — Omega-3 and Omega-6, specifically — are critical for proper childhood development, including brain development, physical growth, bone health and metabolism. As the body does not develop essential fatty acids naturally, we must get them from food. However, these nutrients are often missing in the monotonous staple food diets of the vast majority of families in developing countries. Emerging cost-effective solutions, such as lipid-based nutrient supplements (LNS) that can be added to locally prepared meals, combined with breastfeeding promotion, can help ensure adequate essential fat intake early in a child's development — when it counts the most.
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