What happens if people don’t get all the vitamins and minerals they need?

Nutrition underpins good health and a considerable body of research has highlighted links between inadequate intakes of vitamins and minerals and poor health.

A 2011 study[1] found that, at that time, poor diet cost the NHS an estimated £5.8 billion a year, an economic burden greater than that of smoking related diseases.  It is estimated that 70,000 premature deaths could be prevented each year if diets matched nutritional guidelines. This is more than 10 per cent of current mortality and the health benefits of meeting nutritional guidelines have been estimated to be as high as £20 billion each year.[2]

There are now strong links between low intakes of particular nutrients and the risk of developing chronic disease including some cancers, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and depression.[3]

During pregnancy, insufficient nutrient intake can have long-term health implications for the health of the child.  Women who are trying to conceive, and pregnant women should take a folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms up to week 12 of the pregnancy to help prevent neural tube defects such as Spina Bifida in the unborn foetus[4]. Recent years have also seen a re-emergence of cases of rickets in babies and children which is caused by vitamin D deficiency, often in the mother; government advice is for all pregnant and breastfeeding women to take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D.

As well as vitamins and minerals, intakes of marine omega-3 fatty acids have an important role to play in maintaining health[5].  There is evidence that omega-3s can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, help maintain cognitive function during ageing and may help to prevent some types of dementia and depression.

Given the ageing population in the UK, improving nutrition is increasingly important for enabling people to maintain quality of life in older age.

[1] The economic burden of ill health due to diet, physical inactivity, smoking, alcohol and obesity in the UK

[2] The Cabinet Office.Food Matters.Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century. 2008

[3] World Health Organization.Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases. Report of a Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation. WHO Technical Report Series 916. 2003.

[4] Vitamins, supplements and nutrition in pregnancy

[5] Role of fatty acids and micronutrients in healthy ageing