We each have a complex relationship with food that goes beyond obtaining the nutrients needed to fuel physical activity, growth, repair and to maintain good health.
Some people live only to eat – planning their meals and snacks in advance, experimenting with new tastes and craving old favourites. If you fall into this group, you are likely to obtain more nutrition than you need and to struggle with weight-related health issues.
Other people eat only to live, juggling their body image and hunger to obtain just enough nutrition to sustain life. While a so-called starvation diet is associated with a longer lifespan in some animal, in humans it is more often accompanied with protein and micronutrient deficiencies that attract their own health problems.
The ideal answer is to strive for balance and aim for both – living to eat as well as eating to live while obtaining the right amount of nutrition to maintain a healthy weight and avoid deficiencies.
The molecules found within most cells in your body are replaced at least once a year. Even your bones are constantly remodelling with 10% of their mass replaced every twelve months or so. Unlike plants, you can’t use the energy of the sun to photosynthesise new replacement building blocks and need to obtain them from our diet.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the UK
It’s often claimed that vitamin and mineral supplements are a waste of money as you can get all the vitamins and minerals you need from your food. While this may be the case in an ideal world, in the real world that simply isn’t true. Results from the latest UK National Diet and Nutrition Surveys (NDNS) show that:
- average intakes of sugar and saturated fat are too high
- average intakes of fibre are too low
- less than a third of adults (31%) get the recommended 5-a-day for fruit and veg
- the average consumption of oily fish is just 64g per week – less than half the recommended 140g.
Not surprisingly, our dietary intakes of vitamins and minerals from food are also less than ideal. In a significant number of cases, vitamin and mineral intakes are so low they don’t even meet the Lower Reference Nutrient Intake (LRNI) which is needed to prevent deficiency diseases such as iron-deficiency anaemia.
Adults with intakes below the LRNI – the % not meeting the RNI is greater
That’s just the ones at risk of deficiency diseases. Overall, at least half of UK women aged 19 to 65 years do not meeting the EU NRV (nutrient reference value) for vitamins B2, folate, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, calcium, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc which is astonishing given that we are often told we can get all the vitamins and minerals we need from our food.
Low vitamin D blood levels are of particular concern in all age groups, with 17% of adults and 26% of teenagers having low vitamin D status throughout the year, not just in the winter months when there is insufficient UV light to trigger the synthesis of vitamin D in your skin.
Clearly, there are serious gaps in vitamin and mineral intakes within the UK. While diet should always come first, taking a vitamin and mineral supplement can help to prevent micronutrient deficiencies which have been linked with an increased risk of developing disease in the long-term.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the US
A review of US diets published in 2014 found that large portions of the population had total intakes below the estimated average requirement for vitamin A (35%), vitamin C (31%), vitamin D (74%) and vitamin E (67%) as well as for calcium (39%) and magnesium (46%). In addition, two-thirds (66%) of the population had a total usual intake of vitamin K that was below the adequate intake. They concluded that, in large proportions of the population, micronutrient sufficiency is currently not being achieved through food solutions for several essential vitamins and minerals, and that vitamin and mineral deficiencies can be overcome by taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement.
This is worrying given that a scientific review by the American Medical Association, who looked at the results of over 150 clinical trials, concluded that lack of vitamins is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, some cancers, birth defects, osteoporosis, bone fractures and other major chronic health problems. The researchers even stated that ‘Most people do not consume an optimal amount of all vitamins by diet alone. Pending strong evidence of effectiveness from randomized trials, it appears prudent for all adults to take vitamin supplements for chronic disease prevention.
If you know your diet is not as good as it should be, if you are cutting back on food intake to lose weight, or because of dietary intolerances, it makes sense to take a good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement as a nutritional safety net. I certainly do.