Hidden Health Worries For Young People Due To Nutritional Shortfalls

A new report from the Health and Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS) reveals soaring numbers of teens and young adults with seriously inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals are going unrecognised, with the situation set to worsen.

The research for the report Dietary Status Of Teens And Young Adults In Micronutrient Crisis shows that not only have the diets of teenagers and young adults been getting steadily worse over the past 10 years, but that increasing numbers of young people are now at risk of deficiency and several health problems.

Poor adolescent diets may influence heath issues such as bone disease in later life due to calcium deficiencies, brain health and behaviour in adulthood[1] due to lack of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, weight and shape due to meal skipping and crash diets where there is serious limiting of food and elimination of food groups.

A group of leading healthcare professionals, including a nutritionist, a pharmacist and two GPs, assessed the latest evidence from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, along with HSIS consumer research which looked at the dietary habits and the nutritional understanding of young adults.

Key nutrients for which young people are at risk of deficiency include vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, calcium, iodine and magnesium. For example, more than one in five (21 per cent) of 11-18-year olds had vitamin A intakes below the Lower Reference Nutrient Intake (LRNI) and more than half of teenage girls and a third of young women had iron intakes which failed to reach the LRNI, leaving them exposed to the risk of deficiency.

And a secondary analysis of data from years 1-6 of the NDNS[2] found that young adults in their twenties had significantly lower (p < 0.05) intakes of eight micronutrients, expressed as a percentage of the Reference Nutrient Intake, compared with adults in their thirties, forties and fifties (Vitamin A, Riboflavin, Folic acid, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Iodine, Copper).

Yet the HSIS consumer research shows there is a disconnect, with most scoring young people’s diets at least 7 out of ten for healthiness. Three quarters (74 per cent) recognise that nutrition supports academic performance, and 76 per cent say it’s important for mood.

The research also shows that seven out of ten have never heard of ultra-processed foods yet studies[3] show that these highly processed, nutrient-poor foods and drinks provide around 60 per cent of daily calories in the UK.

Co-author of the report, GP Dr Gill Jenkins says: “The teenage years are a key life stage for physical and mental development so having the correct intakes of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats is crucial. For example, bone density peaks in early adulthood – insufficient levels of vitamin D, calcium and magnesium at this time puts this at risk, leading to weaker bones later in life.”

Co-author, GP Dr Nisa Aslam, adds: “Considering that many young people don’t eat enough fruit, vegetables, fibre-rich foods and oily fish, and gravitate towards so-called ultra-processed foods, high in calories, fat, salt and sugar, it’s surprising that respondents to the HSIS poll still give young people’s diets the thumbs up. Parents are simply unaware that their offspring are eating badly, while young people themselves are more interested in the taste of foods than their nutritional value.”

In conclusion, Dr Gill Jenkins says: “Poor diets in teenagers and young adults are a cause for concern – particularly as the situation is getting worse, not better. Good nutrition is vital for future health and mental wellbeing. Diets must be improved but are unlikely to change quickly enough. In the meantime, a daily multi-vitamin and multi-mineral plus a fish oil supplement should be recommended for all teenagers and young adults.”


The report in summary

  • More than one in five (21 per cent) of 11-18-year olds had vitamin A intakes below the minimum needed for good health – called the Lower Reference Nutrient Intake (LRNI). Vitamin A is important for eye and skin health, as well as immune function.
  • Intakes of key B vitamins – needed for energy release and the functioning of blood cells – were low for many young people. A quarter of girls (13 per cent of boys) had riboflavin (vitamin B2) intakes below the LRNI, with blood samples indicating poor riboflavin status in more than 70 per cent of teenagers. For folate, 15 per cent of girls had intakes below the LRNI and around a third showed early signs of clinical deficiency by having low levels of red blood cell folate.
  • Folate is key for the health of unborn children – deficiency increases the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida. Therefore, it’s vital for girls – as the next generation of mothers – to have adequate folate in the diet. Folate is found in green leafy vegetables, liver, orange juice and fortified breakfast cereals. Folic acid supplements are recommended in early pregnancy but only 6 per cent of young women take them at the correct time[4].
  • The nation’s lack of vitamin D has been laid bare during the COVID crisis. Not only vital for the immune system, vitamin D plays a role in bone health and muscle function. Intakes of vitamin D amongst teenagers are just a fifth of that recommended (~2 micrograms vs. 10 micrograms). Current government guidance is for everyone to take a daily vitamin D supplement, while experts have been warning of the need to boost vitamin D status to ensure optimal immune function as we live through COVID.
  • Iron is essential for transporting oxygen around the body and supporting both immune health and cognitive function. Children and young women are more at risk of low iron levels – leading to tiredness, loss of concentration and fatigue. More than half of teenage girls and a third of young women had iron intakes which failed to reach the LRNI, leaving them exposed to the risk of deficiency. Iron intakes are lower today than a decade ago, possibly due to the trend to give up red meat – one of the best dietary sources of this mineral. Looking at blood samples, a quarter of teenage girls and 12 per cent of women had low iron stores while one ten were clinically deficient.
  • Apart from vitamin D, calcium and magnesium are important for bone health – working together to establish a strong, dense bone structure for life. Magnesium also supports the normal functioning of the nervous system. Around 10-15 per cent of teens and young adults had inadequate intakes of calcium, and there was evidence of a downward trend, since 45 per cent more teenagers had intakes below the LRNI compared with 2008-09. For magnesium, half of teenage girls and a third of boys had intakes below the LRNI.
  • Other nutrients of concern were potassium (normal blood pressure and muscle function), iodine (hormone regulation), selenium and zinc (both vital for normal immune function). Further details are in Table 3 of the report.

[1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170619134058.htm

[2] Derbyshire E (2018) Micronutrient Intakes of British Adults Across Mid-Life: A Secondary Analysis of the

UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Front. Nutr. 5:55. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2018.00055

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6830631/

[4] PloS One (2014) 9(2): e89354.