By Dr. Mercola
A chronic lack of vitamins and minerals is a leading cause of death in the developing world. The so-called 'hidden hunger' impacts 2 billion people around the globe, costing $180 billion a year and leading to millions of deaths.
A new series of studies published in The Lancet has revealed that 10 interventions -- half of them involving micronutrients -- could save close to 1 million lives every year.1
It's important to realize, also, that the health effects of nutritional deficiencies are not only something that affect people in Africa, India and Afghanistan; it's also a serious issue in industrialized countries like the US.
Simple Nutritional Interventions to Save 1 Million Lives
In areas with the highest levels of hidden hunger, such as sub-Saharan Africa, South-Central/South-East Asia and India, 40 percent of preschool children have stunted growth, 30 percent have iron-deficiency anemia and more than half are vitamin-A deficient.
Many of the children have multiple micronutrient deficiencies, especially lacking vitamin A, zinc, iron and iodine.
Living in these areas was associated with a low Human Development Index score, which measures education, standard of living and health, suggesting that children will have a hard time developing to reach their full potential in the current conditions.2
The Lancet researchers, however, suggested numerous low-cost, high-impact solutions including:
- Maternal multiple micronutrient supplementation, energy protein supplements, and calcium supplementation during pregnancy, along with salt iodization, estimated to save 102,000 lives a year
- Vitamin A and zinc supplementation for children, estimated to save 145,000 lives a year
- Promotion of early and exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, and continued breastfeeding for 24 months, estimated to save 221,000 lives a year
- Management of malnutrition, estimated to save 435,000 lives a year
Why Nutrient Supplementation – and Healthy Food -- Make More Sense Than GM Foods
It's encouraging to see researchers focusing on nutritional solutions rather than potentially harmful technological ones, like the further proliferation of genetically modified (GM) crops. The idea that you can end world hunger with GM foods is simply not substantiated, but that doesn't keep it from being heavily promoted as such.
Take golden rice, which has been genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene, which your body can convert to vitamin A. It's been promoted as a way to alleviate vitamin-A deficiency, which is common in developing countries where people don't have regular access to beta-carotene-rich foods, like vegetables and fruits.
One of the problems with this 'solution' is that your body can only convert beta-carotene to vitamin A under certain conditions. Specifically, beta-carotene is fat-soluble, which means dietary fat is required for your body to convert it into vitamin A.
But many people in developing countries eat very low-fat diets, as they simply do not have access to animal foods or other fat on a regular basis. Furthermore, malnourished people might not be able to convert beta-carotene to vitamin A efficiently, so taken as a whole, the actual usefulness of golden rice is debatable.
The soundness of the idea becomes even more questionable when you consider the unrealistic amounts of rice you'd have to consume each day to obtain the recommended amount of vitamin A. As stated in a golden rice case study from Iowa State University3:
"Even if golden rice is successfully introduced… a woman would need to eat 16 lbs. of cooked rice every day in order to get sufficient Vitamin A, if golden rice were her only source of the nutrient. A child would need 12 lbs." [Emphasis mine]
What people in the developing world need in order to receive ample dietary vitamin A and other necessary micronutrients is access to a diverse range of nutritious foods -- including animal products like eggs, cheese and meat and vegetables such as dark leafy greens and sweet potatoes.
This is the type of diet that is attained from biodiverse farming -- the opposite of what will occur if GM crops like golden rice get planted on a large scale, requiring the removal of all other competing life forms.
Nutrient Deficiencies Are More Common Than You Might Think – Even in the US
In the US, many people are suffering from unidentified nutritional deficiencies. While in some cases it may be due to poverty and limited access to healthy foods, in many cases it is actually due to a diet that's too heavy in processed foods.
Because processed foods are stripped of nutrients your body needs, you could be eating a large number of calories, and even be overweight or obese, but still become malnourished. In just three generations, a nutrient-deficient diet can lead to infertility, which is on the rise in the US4 -- but this is only one of the consequences. Following are some of the more common nutrient deficiencies in the developed world, as well as their health effects:
It's estimated that over 95 percent of U.S. senior citizens may be deficient in vitamin D, along with 85 percent of the American public. Researchers have noted that vitamin D deficiency is prevalent in adults of all ages who have increased skin pigmentation (such as those whose ancestors are from Africa, the Middle East, or India), or who always wear sun protection or limit their outdoor activities.5
The best source of vitamin D is absolutely free and from the sun, but occasional sunlight exposure to your face and hands is not sufficient for vitamin D nutrition for most people. To optimize your levels, you need to expose large portions of your skin to the sun, and you may need to do it for more than a few minutes. Contrary to popular belief, the best time to be in the sun for vitamin D production is actually as near to solar noon as possible (you need to figure in Daylight Saving Time, which typically pushes solar noon to 1 p.m. for most).
A robust and growing body of research clearly shows that vitamin D is absolutely critical for good health and disease prevention. Vitamin D affects your DNA through vitamin D receptors (VDRs), which bind to specific locations of the human genome. Scientists have identified nearly 3,000 genes that are influenced by vitamin D levels, and vitamin D receptors have been found throughout the human body. A deficiency in this vitamin may lead to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, depression and more.
Omega-3 fats improve your cellular response to insulin, neurotransmitters and other messengers. They also help the repair process when your cells are damaged. Omega-3 deficiency can cause or contribute to serious health problems, both mental and physical, and may be a significant underlying factor of up to 96,000 premature deaths each year.
Most Americans consume a dangerously insufficient amount of omega-3s, which are found primarily in fish and other seafood. My latest recommendation for a source of high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fats is krill oil.
The omega-3 fatty acids in krill are attached to phospholipids that increase their absorption, which means you need to take less of it, and it won't cause belching or burping like many other fish oil products, many of which pass undigested through the alimentary canal oxidizing and causing unpleasant symptoms along its journey. Additionally, it naturally contains astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant—almost 50 times more than is present in fish oil. This prevents the highly perishable omega-3 fats from oxidizing (going rancid) before you are able to integrate them into your cellular tissue.
Vitamin B12 is a powerhouse micronutrient often known as the "energy vitamin" because it assists in energy production. Your body relies on the efficient conversion of carbohydrates to glucose -- your body's source of fuel -- to run smoothly, and vitamin B12 plays a major role in that conversion. B12 also enables your body to convert fatty acids into energy, among many other important functions, including brain health. Mental fogginess and problems with memory are two of the top warning signs that you have vitamin B12 deficiency.
Studies from the US Framingham trial show one in four adults are deficient in vitamin B12, and nearly half the population has suboptimal blood levels. If you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, vitamin B12 is one of the nutrients your body is most likely deficient in, as it is naturally present in foods that come from animals, including meat, fish, eggs, milk and milk products.
Further, vitamin B12 is the largest vitamin that we know of. Because of its large size, it is not easily absorbed passively like most supplements. Because of this, many, if not most oral B12 supplements are worthless and do NOT work. Vitamin B12 requires a complex system in your body involving intrinsic factor to bind to it so it can be actively absorbed in the end of your small intestine. As you grow older, the ability to produce intrinsic factor decreases and often causes a deficiency state.
Zinc deficiency is common in the developing world, and it's thought that about 12 percent of the US population, and up to 40 percent of the elderly, are also at risk for zinc deficiency. Part of the problem is that many people do not eat enough zinc-rich foods, while the mineral is also not well absorbed. Your body has no way to store zinc, so it depends on a daily supply through diet. Zinc is important for a number of life-sustaining functions, including strong immunity, mood, mental clarity, prostate and intestinal health and more.
Mild zinc deficiency is relatively common, especially in infants and children, pregnant or breast-feeding women, elderly, people with poor gastrointestinal absorption or bowel disease like Crohn's disease, and for those eating vegetarian or vegan diets.
According to Dr. Cees Vermeer, one of the world's top researchers into vitamin K, nearly everyone is deficient in it -- just like most people are deficient in vitamin D. Most Americans get enough K from their diet to maintain adequate blood clotting, but NOT enough to offer protection against health problems like cancer, osteoporosis, infectious disease, brain conditions, heart disease, varicose veins and more.
Are Nutritional Supplements Right for Everyone?
I do believe that dietary supplements -- including vitamins and minerals -- can help compensate for some of the damage your body incurs through living in a contemporary culture, as well as for those living in the developing world where access to high-quality nutrients is not often available. However, it's not wise to use supplements to justify a poor diet. In my experience, no amount of supplements will ever be able to substitute for healthy food choices.
But there are times when supplements can be quite useful, and I believe that some supplements, such as a high-quality, animal-based omega-3, for example, are essential for nearly everyone. This is because the main source of animal-based omega-3 fats in your diet comes from fish – most of which is now so grossly polluted with heavy metals, PCBs. Another supplement that many people need is vitamin D3, unless you can get sufficient amounts of safe sun exposure year-round, or use a safe tanning bed.
There are other instances when supplements may be useful as well, such as in the case of CoQ10 or ubiquinol if you're taking a statin drug. You may also want to take one or more food-based supplements to ensure you are getting an adequate variety of nutrients. Ultimately, your BEST solution is to choose the highest quality foods possible, and regularly eat a wide variety of whole locally grown minimally processed organic foods. In the event you do choose to take a dietary supplement, make sure it has the following characteristics:
- It is as close as possible to its natural (whole food) form, and ideally certified organic
- Uses independent third-party labs that check the raw materials for contaminants and correct dosage
- Follows industry standards for quality assurance such as Good Manufacturing Processes (GMP) certifications and have compliance to these standards with regular audits by an independent third-party agency.
- The utmost care has been taken in all phases of its production, from growing its ingredients, to manufacturing, testing for potency and quality control
- It works! I always try to select from companies that have a long track record of providing high-quality products that produce good clinical results