Micronutrients: food for thought

Conrad Cole, MD, MPH

Physicians and researchers are seeing a resurgence of micronutrient deficiencies in certain high-risk populations of children. But what exactly does that mean to those children—right now and in the future?

For children who don’t get enough micronutrients it means life-long problems, including decreased neurodevelopment and diminished cognitive abilities.

“Micronutrients are nutrients that are needed by the body in small quantities and are important for development, growth and sustaining life,” says Conrad Cole, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition in Emory School of Medicine. “That’s why they’re called micronutrients, and the ones we commonly think about are iron, vitamin D, calcium and zinc because they all have significant importance.”

To listen to Cole’s own words about micronutrients, access Emory’s new Sound Science podcast.

Minority children, low-income children and those less than three years old are more likely to lack micronutrients, although very young children show no apparent signs of this deficit. That’s why micronutrient deficiency in children is usually referred to as the “hidden hunger,” says Cole.

Micronutrient deficiency has a prolonged effect on neurodevelopment, and it’s not something you see immediately, Cole says. If you don’t test for it, you don’t know it’s there until it’s overt.

However, by that time the damage has already been done. That is, brain growth and neural development have been compromised, and so has the immune system. Even if the deficit is reversed, it doesn’t correct the issues.

Because so few of these nutrients are needed, deficiencies can be avoided early in life. Foods such as milk, cereal, fortified orange juice and even some fish, such as salmon and tuna supply ample micronutrients–if people know to eat them.

Cole’s next study focuses on how education can boost children’s intake of these micronutrients by promoting specific foods rather than supplements.

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