New data from the Health & Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS) reveals many people in the UK are lacking in eight key nutrients, with potentially harmful effects on their health.
The HSIS report – BACK TO BASICS: THE NUTRIENTS YOU NEED, SERVED ON A PLATE – looks at the challenges of meeting recommended nutritional intakes through diet alone. For instance, the HSIS report notes, for an adult female to meet the recommended daily intake of iron (14.8mg for those aged 19-50 years), they would need toeat 1.057kg (1860kcal) of grilled, lean sirloin steak, 1.973kg (671kcal) of steamed broccoli, or 779g (1005kcal) chickpeas.
Co-authored by HSIS dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton and GP Dr Nisa Aslam, BACK TO BASICS: THE NUTRIENTS YOU NEED, SERVED ON A PLATE, looks at the role of Vitamin D, folate, calcium, magnesium, selenium, iron, iodine and omega-3. All play a significant role in our overall health and wellbeing and, despite the bombardment of dietary advice we receive daily, these are the nutrients that many of us need more of.
Since the start of 2020, our health has been under the spotlight as never before because of the global pandemic. Dietitian, Dr Carrie Ruxton from HSIS – www.hsis.org – says: “The nutrients we absorb from our food significantly impact our immune status and susceptibility to infection.” Dr Ruxton goes on to say that nine out of 10 women of child-bearing age have low folate levels which fail to meet World Health Organisation recommendations for a healthy growing foetus.
Meanwhile, GP, Dr Nisa Aslam from HSIS notes: “Iron is also lacking in over half of girls aged 11-18 years and more than one quarter of women aged 19-64, which in time could lead to iron deficiency anaemia – a condition that causes tiredness and affects immune function. So, with our nutrition lacking in so many important areas, it’s time to go back to basics with our diet.”
Who is at risk and why?
Teenagers, and teenage girls in particular, adult women; especially those of childbearing age, and the over-65s, are the stand-out groups suffering most from a lack of eight key nutrients for health. In addition, many over-65s are failing to meet the minimum levels for certain nutrients important for optimal health in ageing.
But why these people in particular? Dr Ruxton cites a number of reasons for falling nutritional intakes in these groups, including a rise in faddy diets where whole food groups are avoided, a lack of home cooking, low vegetable and wholegrain intakes, and the rise in biscuits, cakes, confectionery and takeaways eaten during the pandemic. “Over a third of Brits (36%) skip meals because they are too busy, whilst fewer than a third have heard of the Eatwell Guide – the government’s recommended dietary guide,” adds Dr Ruxton.
There’s also been a shift towards plant-based diets, with one in eight people in the UK now vegan or vegetarian, which goes hand in hand with a 16% decline in red meat consumption.
GP Dr Nisa Aslam notes: “Red meat is a source of several highly bioavailable, key micronutrients including zinc, iron, iodine, vitamin B12 and vitamin D so, if you plan to cut it out of your diet, you need to plan for suitable nutrient-rich alternatives or top up with a multivitamin and multimineral supplement.”
Despite this rise in the number of people following plant-based diets, fewer than a third of adults aged 19-34 manage to hit their recommended number of five 80g portions of fruits and vegetables a day, making it more likely that they miss out on the essential vitamins and minerals provided by these foods.
What can we do to get our health back?
“In an ideal world, we should get all our nutrients from the food on our plates, enjoying a spectrum of colourful fruit and veg, oily fish, dairy foods, lean meats, beans, legumes, nuts, soya foods and red meat. However, busy lifestyles make this hard,” says Dr Nisa Aslam. She recommends a multivitamin and multimineral supplement appropriate to your age group as well as a 10μg daily vitamin D supplement between October and early March. “We get vitamin D via summer sunlight on our skin, but in the UK, during the autumn and winter months, it’s much harder to get enough UVB to meet our vitamin D needs, because we tend to cover more of our skin with clothes and the sun stays lower in the sky. Therefore, we need to rely on foods and supplements.”
Dr Ruxton also suggests an omega-3 supplement containing the fatty acids EPA and DHA if you are not eating at least one 140g portion of oily fish a week, such as sardines, salmon or mackerel. She adds, “For women of reproductive age, a 400μg daily folic acid supplement is essential to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in babies, should they fall pregnant, whilst children aged six months to five years old can benefit from a vitamin A, C and D supplement. In fact, in a large study, those taking full-spectrum multivitamin-multimineral supplements had the lowest risk of any nutrient deficiency.”
So how do we go about ensuring we get the nutritional basics right to maintain good health and prevent disease? The following tips should set you off on the right path.
Dr Carrie Ruxton and Dr Nisa Aslam: 10 HSIS tips – www.hsis.org – to bring your nutrient status back to basics
- Bridge dietary gaps: Bridge micronutrient gaps in your diet with a multivitamin and multimineral supplement appropriate to your age group (applies to adults and children).
- Love your omega-3s: If you aren’t managing to eat at least one portion (140g) of oily fish a week, ensure your body’s omega-3 needs are being met with an omega-3 supplement containing the fatty acids EPA and DHA appropriate to your age group (applies to adults and children). There are fish-based omega-3 supplements and algae ones for vegetarians and vegans.
- Up your Vitamin D: Take a 10μg daily vitamin D supplement between October and early March to top up the limited amounts available from natural food sources (applies to adults and children).
- Mums-to-be: All women of reproductive age who may become pregnant should take a 400μg daily folic acid supplement to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in their babies.
- Babies, infants and children: It’s a good idea to give children aged 6 months to 5 years a vitamin A, C and D supplement, as recommended by the Chief Medical Officer.
- Eatwell: Follow the recommendations from the Eatwell Guide to help you achieve the recommended intake of protein, fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
- Veg & Fruit – life’s vitality: Aim to include at least 400g (5 x 80g portions) of vegetables and fruit in your daily diet. This could be through soups, stews or salads, or chucking a handful of frozen peas or sweetcorn into recipes. A daily glass of orange juice, or a handful of berries or raisins sprinkled on your porridge is an easy hack. Or try spinach and mushrooms with scrambled eggs, or a piece of fruit alongside your usual toast.
- Plate colour: Try adding a new vegetable or fruit to your basket each week – and remember frozen, fresh, dried and tinned all count. Eating a wide range of colours of fruit and veg is a good way to ensure you’re maximising essential vitamins, minerals and health-giving phytonutrients, such as polyphenols.
- Cook from scratch: Aim to cook as much of your own food as possible, as ultra-processed food tends to have lower levels of micronutrients and higher levels of fat, salt and sugar. Batch cooking nutritious dinners and popping them in the freezer is a great way to do this and save time in the evenings.
- Label check: Check the label of your regular supplements to make sure you’re not doubling up for any individual nutrients, and you’re following the recommended doses. If you’re on regular medication, it’s wise to let your doctor know that you want to take a dietary supplement.
 Back To Basics: The Nutrients You Need, Served On A Plate; Edition 1; HSIS – Autumn 2021
 PHE. (2016). Government Dietary Recommendations. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/618167/government_dietary_recommendations.pdf
 McCance and Widdowson’s ‘composition of foods integrated dataset’ on the nutrient content of the UK food supply. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/composition-of-foods-integrated-dataset-cofid
 Perspectus Global; 1000 consumers; Winter 2021
 Between 2008 and 2016, red meat consumption fell from 74g/day to 62g/day.
 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)
 The Eatwell Guide. (2016). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide