08.01.2021 Nutrition

Diets lack key vitamins and minerals

Micronutrient deficiency is a critical issue worldwide affecting more than two billion people.

And new research predicts this ‘hidden hunger’ will continue to get worse unless vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and pulses are urgently made more available and affordable.

An analysis of the trajectory of diets across the globe from now until 2050 shows worldwide our diets are lacking in vitamins and minerals essential for proper growth and development. It warns that serious micronutrient inadequacies will persist globally along with continued undernutrition in the poorest regions of the world.

Yet, while micronutrients are lacking, nearly all countries in the world have more than adequate carbohydrate and protein available.

The study was led by University of Illinois with CSIRO, the International Food Policy Research Institute and others was published in Nature Sustainability in December.

Widespread inadequacies in calcium, vitamin D, vitamin E and folate are likely to continue into the future.

For some of the poorest countries in the world, the study projects continued inadequacies in iron, zinc, and vitamins A and K.

The effects of severe micronutrient deficiencies include stunting of growth, a weaker immune system and impaired intellectual development.

CSIRO’s Dr Jessica Bogard said the findings reinforced the importance of encouraging a shift from carbohydrate-rich staples to a more diverse diet worldwide.

“Global food security is not just about providing adequate calories,” said Dr Bogard.

“A person can consume too many calories but still be malnourished.”

Not surprisingly, in Australia like many high-income countries, overconsumption is a concern, with diets above the recommended intake for alcohol, saturated fat and added sugar. 

A 2017 study by CSIRO found that four out of five Australian adults were not eating enough fruit and vegetables in order to meet Australian Dietary Guidelines.

The research points to climate change, increasing incomes and evolving diets as the biggest factors affecting food and nutrition security in the future.

“A change in the climate combined with a change in people’s diets, as they begin to earn more, will ultimately impact on our agricultural systems and what gets grown where,” said Dr Bogard.

“Improving farm productivity and economic growth alone is not going to be enough to achieve nutritional security now and into the future; we must refocus our efforts on dietary quality rather than quantity.”

The report recommends that all countries, including Australia, need to align agriculture more closely to nutritional needs by investing in the availability and affordability of nutrient-rich foods, including vegetables, fruits, pulses, nuts and seeds. 

In many developing countries this must also include a focus on nutritious animal-source foods.

Complementary interventions throughout the food system such as reduced waste, and efforts to promote healthy food environments will also be needed.

High-resolution data from the study on nutrient adequacy across the globe is available here: https://impactnutrients.ifpri.org/nutrientModeling/