A balanced diet is the foundation of good health, but hectic lifestyles and bad habits can undermine the best of intentions — and studies confirm that diets don’t always keep up with our nutritional needs at different stages of life.
Data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that two out of three adults don’t hit their five-a-day target of fruit and vegetables and intakes have actually fallen over the past four years.
Shortfalls in key nutrients such as vitamin D and iron are also worryingly widespread and more than a quarter of our calories come from so-called discretionary foods such as crisps, treats and drinks which have minimal nutritional value.
Now new research has uncovered even more gaps in both our knowledge of dietary needs and our nutritional intake. The survey of 3,000 adults aged 18-55, conducted for the Health Supplements Information Service, found that three out of four adults eat fewer than five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and the average is only three.
Far too many Britons are also missing important nutrients at key milestones. Experts advise taking extra folate during pregnancy and iron is often recommended, too. Yet the poll found that only one in 25 people identified this as a time when it was important to start taking supplements.
Shockingly, more than half (57%) thought children should not take supplements, contrary to emphatic guidance from the Chief Medical Officers of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The CMOs have repeatedly reminded parents and health professionals that all children under the age of five need supplementary vitamin D unless they get sufficient from fortified formula milk.
But it’s not just phases of higher nutritional need, such as childhood and motherhood, when supplements are important. Almost half those questioned (44%) identified the forties and fifties as the times of life when it is important to start taking supplements.
Independent Dietitian and advisor to the Health Supplements Information Service (HSIS) Dr Carrie Ruxton notes: “The lifestyle choices you make during your middle years are incredibly important. When you’re younger, you have more resilience and are physically at your peak, but by 40 or 50-something you begin to pay the price for any bad habits or nutritional shortfalls.
“Your nutritional needs also change, and certain nutrients, including vitamins B12 and D, calcium, potassium and fibre become increasingly important,” she says.
The so-called sandwich generation — people aged 35 to 54 who are often juggling the demands of caring for both children and ageing parents, while trying to hold down a job and maintain a home — have some of the highest stress levels of any age-group.
Dr Ruxton warns: “This can have a very detrimental effect on diet as we often turn to high-fat comfort foods or sweet treats during times of stress. When people are time-pressured it’s also very easy to turn to ready-meals and takeaways and they are rarely as nourishing as a good home-cooked meal.”
The HSIS survey confirmed this reliance on convenience foods with one in six respondents (17%) saying they ate a microwave meal at least twice a week, a similar number (15%) reached for an oven-ready meal and one in ten (10%) turn to takeaways at least twice a week.
Only one in three people (34%) questioned for the study said they prepared a meal from scratch every day and one in eight (13%) managed a home-cooked meal only once or twice a week.
One in five of the sandwich-generation admitted they prepared a home-cooked meal only twice a week, or less, and only one in three (32%) takes a vitamin or mineral supplement on a daily basis.
Researchers found that although two out of three people (67%) have taken a supplement at some time, two out of five (38%) adults admit they do not know which nutrients are important for specific functions or parts of the body.
The most popular supplements are multivitamins, with two out of five (39%) saying they take these all-inclusive top-ups. Fish oils are also popular and were taken on a regular basis by one in three (32%) of those questioned. A similar number (29%) takes vitamin C regularly and one in ten (11%) takes calcium for bone health.
The survey found that only one in six adults (15%) takes a regular top up of vitamin D, but National Diet and Nutrition Survey data suggests that one in five adults aged 19 to 64 is so deficient in vitamin D that they are at increased risk of osteomalacia and weakened bones. For optimum effect calcium and vitamin D should also be taken in tandem as vitamin D is crucial for optimal uptake of bone-strengthening calcium.
Dr Ruxton says: “It is really important to drive home the message that nutritional deficiencies can lead to serious health problems. And while it is true that with the exception of vitamin D we should be able to get all our dietary needs from a healthy balanced diet, the reality is that far too many people don’t have the time, or perhaps the knowledge, to eat healthily every day.
“Taking a multivitamin, or topping up on specific nutrients for a milestone moment such as pregnancy, or to address a particular health issue or concern, is simply commonsense. We wouldn’t think of driving without insurance, so why on earth should anyone think of foregoing this simple and inexpensive form of health insurance?”
She adds: “The media has an important role to play in raising awareness of the benefits of a healthy diet and the value of taking top-up nutrients when they are needed.”