New study reveals significant nutrient gaps
MILLIONS of young adults have such low levels of vitamins and minerals they are jeopardising their fertility and long-term health, new research has revealed. An in-depth analysis of data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) shows that adults in their 20s are falling short of recommended intakes of 12 key micronutrients, and levels for seven micronutrients are so low they pose a threat to health.
A similar picture emerged for adults in their 30s, with shortfalls identified across 12 micronutrients and deficits in four micronutrients which are severe enough to compromise people’s health and wellbeing. The World Health Organization describes micronutrients — substances such as vitamins or minerals which the human body needs in tiny amounts — as “magic wands” because they help us produce enzymes and hormones needed for the healthy biochemical functions of the body and support growth and development.
Author of the study, Dr Emma Derbyshire, Public Health Nutritionist and an advisor to the Health & Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS), warns: “These shortfalls are of particular concern given that early adulthood is a time to be in the ‘nutritional prime’ of life, preparing for parenthood. In addition, nutritional intakes in mid-life can also help to future-proof health against debilitating and chronic disease in later life.”
The study, just published in Frontiers of Nutrition, was commissioned by HSIS and identifies a number of factors which appear to be driving these dietary gaps. These include restrictive diets, especially those which exclude entire food groups, skipping meals, snacking, and social media distorting people’s views on dieting and body image as well as eating disorders.
Therefore, Dr Derbyshire points out that the nutrient deficits highlighted by the study could easily be plugged with vitamin and mineral supplements.
This latest analysis from Dr Emma Derbyshire examines nutrient intake data from the NDNS for 3,238 people and charts the number of adults in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s achieving the reference nutrient intake (RNI) for 16 important vitamins and minerals, and the number of people reaching the lower reference nutrient intake (LRNI) for 12 micronutrients.
The RNI is the amount needed to meet the needs of most people (97.5%) and the LRNI represents the amount which would be sufficient for a very small number of people (2.5%) who have particularly low dietary nutrient requirements; intakes at or below LRNI are likely to result in deficiency.
The vast majority of people need more than the LRNI, but the data confirms that adults in their 20s and 30s are failing to achieve even this minimum target for 12 nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, riboflavin, vitamin B12, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, selenium and iodine. Among adults in their 20s, intakes for seven nutrients — vitamin A, riboflavin, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium and iodine — are so low they pose a threat to their health and wellbeing. For adults in their 30s, levels of magnesium, potassium and selenium are dangerously low.
Dr Emma Derbyshire notes further: “Younger adults and females appear to be particularly vulnerable to micronutrient shortfalls from food sources alone. Clearly, improvements in dietary quality are needed across mid-life stages. Alongside this, supplementation strategies should be considered to help adults achieve dietary targets at this life-stage when they should be at their nutritional peak.”
Micronutrient intakes in early adulthood are particularly important as these are typically the years of conception and childbearing. Nutritional intakes in mid-life can also help to protect against developing debilitating and chronic diseases in later life.
Dr Derbyshire continues: “This analysis highlights a number of important findings. Among males, vitamin A and zinc shortfalls were apparent. Among women, a number of micronutrient shortfalls were also evident. The findings showed that younger adults appeared most susceptible.
“Improving diet quality through mid-life stages may help to protect health, prevent chronic disease and disability and enhance economic productivity. However, because so many people are susceptible to nutrient shortfalls, as we have seen from the data I analysed, bridging these dietary gaps is absolutely imperative and a multi-vitamin, multi-mineral and omega-3 food supplements are a vital approach to support those nutrient levels. In an environment where the public is being encouraged to reduce their energy intakes, it is important to ensure that the micronutrient profiles of diets are sustained. The same concept applies to specific food groups, for instance, in cases where red meat reduction is being advocated.
Dr Emma Derbyshire adds: “Dietary trends could have further impact on iron and calcium intakes.”
In summary, Dr Emma Derbyshire says: “It is imperative to continue raising awareness about the importance of healthy and balanced diets and adequate micronutrient intakes. The implications of ‘cutting back or cutting out’ certain food groups also need to be communicated, especially to younger generations who are strongly influenced by social media which is not subject to peer review or monitoring systems.”
Dr Gill Jenkins, GP and an advisor to HSIS adds: “As well as aiming for a healthy and varied diet, supplementation plays a pivotal role in plugging nutrition gaps. The value of multivitamin and mineral supplements, as well as taking an omega-3 supplement because so many of us fail to consume two portions of fish a week (one portion being oily), should not be overlooked in the context of today’s modern lifestyles and the shortfalls shown by the NDNS data and this latest study review.”
Other key findings include:
- One in eight adults (13.3%) in their 20s failed to achieve the LRNI for vitamin A.
- One in 12 (8.9%) of people in their 20s do not achieve the RNI for vitamin A.
- One in ten (10.1%) people in their 20s and 8.7% of those in their 30s are not getting the LRNI for riboflavin.
- Two out of five (39%) of adults in their 20s had selenium intakes below the LRNI.
- More than a third of people in their 30s (36.5%) failed to achieve the LRNI for selenium.
- A third of adults in their 20s (34%) and 30s (33%) have selenium intakes which fell short of the RNI.
- A quarter of adults in their 20s (24.7%) had potassium intakes below the LRNI.
- One in six people in their 20s (16%) are not getting the RNI for iron.
- Women were more likely to have micronutrient shortfalls than men.
- In women aged 20 to 59, average intakes of seven micronutrients; calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, iodine and copper fell below the RNI.
- A third (34%) of women had selenium intakes below the RNI and half (50.3%) were below the LRNI.
- A third (32.2%) of women had iron intakes which fell short of the RNI and a quarter (25.3%) were below the LRNI
- Just under a third (31.4%) or women had potassium intakes below the RNI and a quarter (24.3%) were below the LRNI.
- One in ten women fell below the LRNI for riboflavin (12.6%), magnesium (11.5%) and iodine (11.3%).
- A third of women (31.4%) had potassium intakes below the RNI and a quarter (24.3%) were below the LRNI.
- In women aged 20 to 29 years, 11.5% had iodine intakes which fell short of the RNI and 14.7% were below the LRNI.
- A significantly higher proportion of women in their 20s had magnesium, potassium and iodine intakes below the LRNI compared to older women.
- Average intakes of five micronutrients; magnesium, potassium, zinc, selenium and copper fell below dietary targets for men aged 20 to 59 years.
- Intakes of vitamin A and zinc — which is crucial for healthy sperm — were significantly lower in men aged 20 to 59 years compared with women.
- More than one in 10 men (11.3%) had vitamin A intakes below the LRNI.
- One in 12 men (8.2%) were not meeting the LRNI for zinc.
- Among males aged 20 to 29, just under one-third (29%) had selenium intakes below the LRNI.
- More than one in five (21.9%) men in their 20s had magnesium intakes below the LRNI, 17% had vitamin A intakes below the LRNI and 15% had iodine intakes below the LRNI.
 Dr Emma Derbyshire: Frontiers of Nutrition; Micronutrient Intakes of British Adults Across Mid-Life: A Secondary Analysis of the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey
 Bates B, Cox L, Nicholson S. National Diet and Nutrition Survey Results from Years 5 and 6 (combined) of the Rolling Programme (2012/2013 – 2013/2014). Section 7: Methodological issues and response rates. 2016:24-5. Note: Dr Derbyshire conducted an in-depth analysis of data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) from 2008 to 2014
 Derbyshire EJ. Nutrition in the Childbearing Years. Wiley-Blackwell.India.: Wiley-Blackwell.; 2011.
 Chedraui. P, Pérez-López FR. Nutrition and health during mid-life: searching for solutions and meeting challenges for the aging population. Climacteric. 2013;16(1):85-95.