It's something I never thought I would suggest, but a daily vitamin and mineral supplement for everyone could be a simple, and precise, solution to Britain's greatest health problem. The over fed and undernourished both lack vital nutrients for good health.
Year after year we see the population of the UK getting fatter - yet less well nourished. The familiar statistics about excess calories, fat and sugar in the UK diet often overshadow the fact that large proportions of us are not managing to meet our requirements for essential nutrients like iron, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and fibre. As we eat more food packed with nutritional nasties we are eating less of the goodies and it's having a big impact on health.
Most of us don't eat anywhere near five servings of fruit and veg every day so it's also little wonder that so many UK citizens are running short on protective nutrients like selenium, magnesium, folate and vitamin A. In short, as our diets become more calorie or energy dense they are becoming less nutrient dense. And, as a consequence the incidence of old nutrient deficiency diseases like rickets and iron deficiency anaemia is on the rise.
Meanwhile, health professionals [like me] continue with the 'one size fits all' message that "we can get all the nutrients we need from a healthy balanced diet". Now that message is great if everyone eats a healthy balanced diet! But the reality is that most people don't and probably never will. So preaching isn't working - I feel that now's the time to consider direct interventions to ensure better health.
My view is that if someone can't or won't achieve their antioxidant needs through 5 a day- shouldn't health professionals at least introduce the health benefit from a supplement?
We know there's no quick fix to obesity and weight loss. We also know that healthy eating is of course the ideal! But we must also acknowledge that some people will never eat their five a day, or enjoy a steamed salmon fillet, or whole grain bread! But they just might be willing to plug their nutritional gap with a simple, no effort once a day supplement. No amount of campaigning, public health messaging or education seems to have resulted in any significant dietary change when you look at reports like the National Diet and Nutrition Surveys https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-national-diet-and-nutrition-survey-shows-uk-population-is-eating-too-much-sugar-saturated-fat-and-salt I remember similar findings from these surveys being reported when I was a student Dietician - and that was MANY years ago!
Nutrient deficiency is serious and can even be life threatening. The very reason we even talk about eating 5 a day is to make sure people eat enough antioxidant vitamins and minerals to provide some protection against the NHS burdens of heart disease, cancers and infections. Supplements are regularly recommended to treat deficiency diseases- it's surely not too great a step to consider their use in preventative healthcare is it?
I'd never recommend anyone takes a cocktail of different single dose supplements- but the insurance of taking a good quality once a day, multivitamin and mineral supplement is a simple, cost effective way of topping up nutrient intakes. Even people who eat well most of the time can benefit from a supplement to help on days when they don't eat as well as usual.
We already recommend supplements for groups within the population including the under 5s and pregnant women- that suggests there's a role for supplements for other groups too.
But Caveat Emptor - buyer beware!!
The supplement industry needs to clean up its act before I could ever make general recommendations for their use. For instance: -
• There's very little regulation about how supplements are marketed or advertised
• Levels of nutrients in supplements are not regulated - more is not always better and can even be harmful in some cases
• Consumers need to be able to clearly identify reputable brands- there needs to be a clear industry wide mark of quality
• Maximum nutrients levels of vitamins and minerals in over the counter supplements should be set to avoid the risk of people taking very high toxic doses
• The sale of single, high dose supplements may need to be restricted or controlled
As a practising Dietitian, I am all too aware of the challenges people face to eat the perfect diet. Lack of time, lack of skills and lack of money are all very real obstacles to eating a balanced diet in the 21st Century. So, I looked for some answers to these questions and I came across a new organisation which is bringing independent, common sense advice about vitamin and mineral supplements and health. The newly formed Global Nutrition and Health Alliance (GNHA) is an organisation which I believe will be able to fill that gap for the man [and woman] in the street to get proper advice. Make a note of their name because the GNHA is a group of health and medical experts whose sole focus is to translate nutritional science into simple, practical information for the pubic, the media and health professionals. I have researched and probed GNHA and was so pleased by what I found, that I've joined them.
Readers of this column will know that I attempt to bring clarity to the inconsistent and confusing messages about food, nutrition supplements and health. And now I'm not alone. And now I have a group of other international health professionals which means we are now able to share and discuss research and look at Nutrition and Health internationally! And we're not stopping there. Some new research needs to be done - and we're starting and I need your help.
In the first instance, my GNHA colleagues have agreed to look at two highly topical nutrients- Vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids.
Right now, we want to get a picture of how you use supplements at the moment and where you go to for information.
You can help shape the direction of GNHA research activity by letting me know what you do:
• Do you take a vitamin and mineral supplement? Yes/No
• What sort of supplement do you take? E.g. multivitamin and mineral, single dose vitamin etc
• What is your motivation for taking your supplement/s? E.g. treatment for condition/illness, topping up healthy diet etc
• Where do you go for advice and information about vitamin and mineral supplements? E.g. websites, magazines, health professionals, health store etc
• How do you choose a brand of supplement? E.g. price, advertisements, recommendation etc
Send me your thoughts about supplements- and if you've got a question about Vitamin D or Omega-3 fatty acids? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
And, to find out more about GNHA please register your interest in our work and questions go to