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Serious dietary deficiencies of Vitamin and Minerals common in UK adults. Micronutrient gaps in childbearing years ‘concerning,’ survey stresses

Will Chu

young females

Females and younger adults in the UK appear to be vulnerable to micronutrient shortfalls, a concern given this life period includes the conception and childbearing years, new survey’s author warns.


Once again, national survey data reveal that the diets of UK adults are simply not providing adequate levels of many essential nutrients - and that deficiencies are particularly common in younger age groups, and in females.

This study used data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey of 20-59 year olds.

As the author notes, the poor nutrition of women of childbearing age is of particularly serious concern - as abundant research shows that malnutrition in early life (the first '1000 days' from conception) has lifelong and irreversible effects on both physical and mental health.  

And for both males and females, poor nutrition is known to significantly increase risks for both mental and physical health problems, even if some of them (such as dementia, cardiovascular disease and many cancers) may not usually manifest until older adulthood

Intakes below the 'Lower Reference Nutrient Intake' (LNRI) are a good index of dietary deficiency (97.5% of individuals are estimated to need more than this to stay healthy). And on this measure, the figures show shockingly high risks of essential mineral deficiencies in particular:
  • selenium deficiency - in more than half of all women, and a quarter of all men
  • iron deficiency - in more than a quarter of all women
  • potassium deficency - in almost a quarter of all women, and one in every ten men
  • magnesium deficiency - in one in seven men, and over one in ten women overall - and one in 5 of 20-29 year olds
For most vitamins, serious risk of deficiency appears not quite as common (but is still shockingly high - particularly in younger adults), with the data showing:
  • Vitamin A deficiency - in one in 10 men, and 20-29 years olds in general
  • Vitamin B2 deficiency - in one in 10 women, and 20-29 years olds in general

By looking into these data by both age-group and sex, the author has done an excellent job of highlighting many of the 'gaps' in dietary provision of essential nutrients that are easily masked when data are reported for all adults as a whole.

Dietary improvements would obviously be the ideal - but where this is not possible, these data provide useful information to inform supplementation or fortification of foods. They also show the urgent need for better public health policy and education on nutrition and diet.

Read the underlying research:

Females and younger adults in the UK appear to be vulnerable to micronutrient shortfalls, a concern given this life period includes the conception and childbearing years, the survey’s author warns.

The survey, which quizzed 3,238 adults, aged 20 to 59, found high numbers of both men and women in the 20- to 29-year-old group potentially having potassium (24.7%), zinc (8.6%) and calcium (9.4%) deficiencies.

“These shortfalls are more prominent amongst females and young adults in their twenties,” said Dr Emma Derbyshire, study author and director of consultancy firm Nutritional Insight.

This is of particular concern given that early adulthood is a time to be in the “nutritional prime” of life preparing for parenthood.

The survey, which also looked across all age groups, found men to be at high risk of selenium, magnesium and vitamin A deficiency (affecting 26%, 14% and 11% of men respectively).

Women were most at risk of iron, selenium and potassium deficiency (affecting 25%, 50% and 24%).

“Mid-life is also a time to lay the foundations of good health in preparation for later life,” added Dr Derbyshire.

“Given that current gaps exist between micronutrient intakes and requirements the importance of a healthy and balanced diet needs further reiteration.

“This particularly applies in relation to the elimination or substitution of key food groups. Alongside this, the value of multivitamin and mineral supplements and food fortification strategies should not be overlooked in the context of today's modern lifestyles.”

Survey methods

The cross-sectional survey, which received funding from Health & Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS), began looking at data collated from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey Rolling Programme (NDNS-RP).

Starting in 2008, the survey used data gathered from the first 6 years of the programme. Here, subjects kept a record of all that they consumed and drank in the day for four consecutive days.

Micronutrient intakes from food sources were expressed as a percentage of the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI), the amount of a nutrient enough to meet the needs of nearly all the group.

The values were also noted at a percentage below the Lower Reference Nutrient Intake (LRNI), the level below which deficiencies are most likely to occur, for males and females aged 20–29, 30–39, 40–49, and 50–59 years.

The mean average intake was used if the RNI or LRNI were not available, as was the case for vitamins D and E.

According to the LRNIs, results in general found both men and women were at risk of some vitamin and mineral deficiency.

The highest rates of potential deficiency were most prominent for selenium (25.8% of men, 50.3% of women), potassium (10.0% of men, 24.3% of women), magnesium (14.2% of men, and 11.5% of women) and iron (25.3% of women)

Across age groups, variations were noted with the highest potential deficiency rates for potassium (24.7%), zinc (8.6%) and calcium (9.4%) were found amongst the 20- to 29-year-old group. Those aged 40 to 49 were the most likely to be selenium deficient (41.0%).

Across all age groups and both genders, less than 5% of people were vulnerable to vitamin C, vitamin B12 and folate deficiencies.

Over 10% of men were vulnerable to vitamin A deficiency, as were 20 to 29 year olds in general.

Around 10% of women were vulnerable to riboflavin deficiency, as were 20 to 29 year olds in general.

‘Not at their nutritional prime.'

“UK females and younger adults appear to be particularly vulnerable to micronutrient shortfalls from food sources alone,” said Dr Derbyshire. “Clearly, improvements in dietary quality are needed across mid-life.”

“Alongside this, fortification and supplementation strategies may be considered to help adults achieve dietary targets at this life-stage when they should be at their nutritional prime.”

Commenting on the limitations of the survey, Dr Derbyshire acknowledged that the subjects’ self-reported food and drink consumption over the four days was not necessarily representative of their long-term dietary habits.

Subjects taking dietary supplements were excluded from the survey, thus no data was available to link their use to a correction for any dietary deficiencies.