Iodine: The Hidden Hunger



In some parts of the world, you see people with a swelling at the front of their necks. They rub the swelling with all sorts of things to make it go away. The trouble is, nothing works. And that is because the problem isn’t the swelling. The swelling is just a warning. The real problem is that their body is missing an important nutrient called iodine.

What happens if you don’t get enough iodine in your diet?

Iodine deficiency or a lack of iodine causes a swelling called a goiter. People who don’t get enough iodine in their diet can develop other problems too. They have less energy. They have difficulty learning and working. They might also be partly paralysed, deaf or mentally or physically challenged. Iodine deficiency has been called the silent hunger because we do not crave it although our bodies must have it.

When goiters develop, they can range in size from a lump you feel but can’t see, to swellings that are as big as a fist. Many goiters are as big as a chicken egg. Sometimes they can make it difficult to swallow or breathe. Some people who lack iodine don’t develop goiters, but they have other symptoms instead. These people act sluggish and sleepy, their skin is dry, they get cold easily, and they are constipated.

If you or somebody you know has any of these symptoms it is important to see a doctor or go to a health clinic immediately. The doctor may give you iodine capsules to swallow. These capsules provide the body with enough iodine for more than a year.

One of the worst things lack of iodine does is to slow the development of a baby’s brain even before the baby is born. Iodine deficiency is the world’s leading cause of mental defects.

If a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine, her baby could die or be born with a stunted body and without the ability to hear or speak. Sometimes the effects of iodine deficiency are not so serious, but children are still affected, both in their minds and bodies. Such children get sick more often.

Women who suffer from a lack of iodine have a harder time getting pregnant, and when they do get pregnant they suffer more miscarriages, stillbirths and other problems. About five to ten babies out of every thousand pregnancies worldwide die because of iodine deficiency.

You can see why it is so important to have iodine in your diet. Iodine is naturally a part of soil and water, which means it is present in most food. But if you live in an area where there are frequent floods, or if you live very far from oceans, there is likely very little or no iodine in the soil and water. So food grown in these areas lacks iodine too.

One way to know if you are in an area where there is not enough iodine in the soil and water is to see how many people in your community have goiters. If more than one person out of every ten people has a goiter, there is a good chance that there is not enough iodine in the water and soil where you live.

How can you add iodine to your diet?

If that is the case, you should add iodine to your diet to prevent you and your family from getting the symptoms of goiter. You can get iodine from some foods that come from outside your area. Fish from the sea and other sea foods are very rich in iodine. Many governments make sure that iodine is added to certain foods that everybody eats, such as salt. Sometimes iodine is added to monosodium glutamate (MSG). The addition of iodine to foods is called fortification and the food is then called iodized. Iodized salt is one example. If iodized salt is available, use that instead of salt without iodine.

So remember, if you can’t get iodine in your food naturally, and there are signs of goiter in your area, use iodized salt or MSG. Or talk to a health worker about getting iodine pills.

Not only will you escape bothersome goiters, you will work better and will have the satisfaction of knowing your children have a much better chance of a productive and long life.



  • This script was researched and written by Katie Gilmour Ellis, writer, Toronto, Canada. It was reviewed by Hélène Delisle, Department of Nutrition, University of Montreal, Montreal, Canada.

Information sources

  • Disease control priorities in developing countries; Chapter 19.
    Editors: Dean T. Jamison, W. Henry Mosley, Anthony R. Measham, Jose Luis Bobadilla. Oxford University Press for the World Bank.
  • Where there is no doctor,by David Werner with Carol Thuman and Jane Maxwell. The Hesperian Foundation, P.O. Box 1692, Palo Alto, CA 94302.
  • “Iodine lack maims many millions of children”, Development Forum, October 1985, page 5. U.N. Division of Economic and Social Information/DPI and the United Nations University, United Nations, Room DC1559, New York, N.Y. 10017.
  • A practical guide to the correction of iodine deficiency, by John T. Dunn and Frits Van Der Haar, 1990. International Council for Control of Iodine Deficiency, The Netherlands.