The Hidden Nutrition Shortfalls Putting Young Health At Risk

Soaring numbers of teens and young adults with inadequate vitamins and minerals go unrecognised with situation getting worse

The diets of British teenagers and young adults have been getting steadily worse over the past 10 years, leading to a worrying risk of nutritional deficiencies and health problems. That’s the message from a new report commissioned by the Health and Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS; which found seriously inadequate intakes of vitamins and minerals amongst the younger generation.

Leading healthcare professionals, including a nutritionist, pharmacist and two GPs, assessed the latest evidence from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey – the government’s official diet check. They found not only that intakes of vitamins and minerals have been steadily declining over the past decade but that increasing numbers of young people are now at risk of deficiency – indicating a need for more targeted dietary supplementation to plug nutrient gaps.

Yet, as a new HSIS poll[1] shows, Brits are blissfully unaware of the nutrition shortfalls affecting our teenagers and young adults, with most adults scoring young people’s diets at least 7 out of ten for healthiness.

From bad to worse

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, since bone density peaks in early adulthood, insufficient levels of vitamin D, calcium and magnesium at this time lead to weaker bones later in life.

“Our report reveals low dietary intakes of vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, calcium and magnesium – among others – and an underlying trend of declining intakes compared with 2008-9. Basically, for young people, especially women and girls, diets are definitely getting worse.”

And 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.”

Polling – key facts

The HSIS poll of 1015 UK adults found:

  • Most people rate their offspring’s diet highly, scoring it 7 or 8 out of 10.
  • More than one fifth (21 per cent) of 16-29-year olds say they don’t eat fruit and vegetables at all, with 44 per cent only doing it when they remember.
  • One in six (15 per cent of) vegans and 17 per cent of vegetarians say they never eat fruit and vegetables!
  • Takeaways are popular with young people, especially vegans. Two thirds (68 per cent) of 16-29-year olds (73 per cent of vegans) eat a takeaway once a week or more.
  • 7 out of ten have never heard of ultra-processed foods yet studies[2] show that these highly processed, nutrient-poor foods and drinks provide around 60 per cent of daily calories in the UK.
  • Most people (70 per cent) don’t bother to research what nutrients to include in their diets. However, four in ten buy organic foods – mostly because they think (wrongly) that they are more nutritious.
  • Taste is the single biggest driver of food choice for six out of ten (59 per cent) respondents, with nutrition being important for just over half (51 per cent).
  • 74 per cent think (rightly) that nutrition supports academic performance while 76 per cent say it’s important for mood. Fewer young people than older adults believe that nutrition is important for physical or mental health.

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. Good nutrition is vital for future health and mental wellbeing. Diets must be improved but are unlikely to change quickly enough so, 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[3].
  • 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 functions 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] Omnibus survey of more than 1015 UK adults; Autumn 2020; full data available on request.


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