More than 13 million children in the United States live in homes with limited access to a sufficient food supply, according to a report from the LSU AgCenter, and of those, new research suggests Hispanic children and young girls are disproportionately affected by malnutrition. The data, published in the Pan American Journal of Public Health, found chronic malnutrition among Hispanic children was twice as high as that of non-Hispanic white children.
“This is the most urgent time for our feeding programs in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression,” Kevin Concannon, the Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), said in a statement last year. “It’s time to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people. Food security, the ability to obtain food without having to resort to emergency sources, is an important factor in the physical and mental development of children. Food hardships are even more pronounced among certain groups of children.”
While previous inquiries into malnutrition in the U.S. showed approximately 30 percent of African American and Hispanic children and more than 40 percent of low-income children lived in homes that do not have access to nutritionally adequate diets, the current study delves deer into the issue.
Researchers examined not only the classic definition of malnutrition, which according to the World Hunger Organization is protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), or a lack of calories and protein, but also micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) deficiency.
The findings for Hispanic children and malnutrition
In addition to having twice the malnutrition burden as non-Hispanic whites, Hispanic children in the study were found to have higher rates of stunting, or delayed growth–a common warning sign of chronic malnutrition. This finding held true throughout the evaluation of more than 14,000 children, despite the fact researchers noted 38.2 percent of Hispanic children were either overweight or obese, compared with 29.8 percent of non-Hispanic white children.
What’s more, even in the healthy weight category of Hispanic children, 6.8 percent exhibited stunting, compared with 4.6 percent of overweight or obese Hispanic children.
The differences between Hispanic children and non-Hispanic white children continued when it came to micronutrient malnutirtion; Hispanic children had much higher rates of vitamin D, iron, folate and iodine deficiencies compared to non-Hispanic white children.
In the study, 5.7 percent of Hispanic children had a vitamin D deficiency, compared to 1 percent of non-Hispanic white children and the rate of iron deficiency was 5.7 percent in Hispanic children, compared to 1 percent in non-Hispanic whites.
Hispanic girls were particularly at-risk for malnutrition issues, as the data also indicated gender could be linked to certain micronutrient deficiencies.
Among girls of all ethnicities, 7.2 percent had a vitamin D deficiency and 8.9 percent had an iron deficiency. This is compared to 4.2 percent of boys with a vitamin D deficiency and 5.3 percent with an iron deficiency. Further disparities were noted in other areas; 27.5 percent of girls did not have sufficient iodine, compared to 17.3 percent of boys and researchers noted iodine deficiency in particular was known to cause stunting issues seen with malnutrition.
“Iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) jeopardize children´s mental health– often their very lives. Serious iodine deficiency during pregnancy may result in stillbirths, abortions and congenital abnormalities such as cretinism, a grave, irreversible form of mental retardation that affects people living in iodine-deficient areas of Africa and Asia,” states the World Health Organization. “IDD also causes mental impairment that lowers intellectual prowess at home, at school, and at work. IDD affects over 740 million people, 13 percent of the world’s population. Fifty million people have some degree of mental impairment caused by IDD.”
The findings indicate more attention needs to be placed on specific nutritional guidelines in relation to gender and ethnicity; if nutritional disparities among children continue unaddressed, experts feel “the same problem could be transmitted to the next generation, thus contributing to an intergenerational transfer of poor health and continued disadvantage.”
Until malnutrition is addressed, the LSU AgCenter states children affected will continue to be more likely to develop frequent illnesses and infections such as sore throats, colds, stomachaches, headaches and iron deficiency anemia, and are more likely than others to be in need of hospital care.