Diets in decline: Vitamin and nutrient deficiencies on the rise

By Nikki Cutler

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | Zahar2000
Getty | Zahar2000
Intakes of most vitamins and minerals have taken a nosedive since 2008, leading to an increase in deficiencies of key nutrients including vitamin A, fibre and iron, according to the UK’s latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

The report, covering the nine year period from 2008 to 2017, shows the dietary trends of the nation over the nine year period and provides evidence to help form new dietary advice.

Information was pulled from a mix of interviews, diet diaries and blood and urine samples and results were grouped by age and gender. 

The results show that intakes of most vitamins and minerals have dropped for most groups but this was particularly marked for folate and vitamin A.

Folate and vitamin A

The research reveals that blood folate concentrations decreased for most age and sex groups and there was a significant average yearly reduction in vitamin A intake for all groups.

Children (aged 1.5 to 18) had an average yearly reduction of vitamin A of nearly 4%. In adults, intakes decreased by 2% for those aged 19 to 64 years and 4% for adults aged 65 and over. 

Consequently, there was a 19% increased risk of anaemia in children aged 11-18 years and a 9% increase for adults.

Most worryingly, there was an overall increase in the proportion of women of childbearing age with a blood folate deficiency – from about two-thirds to almost 90% – which increases the likelihood of neural tube defects in infants.

Mandatory fortification of flour​ in the EU is a hotly debated topic but it is yet to be introduced. Currently, UK flour is enriched with nutrients such as iron, calcium carbonate and thiamin (vitamin B1) and there is strong support for adding folic acid to this list.


Further bad news from the report is that many people – especially girls and women – are falling short on their iron intake.

An average yearly reduction in iron intake was seen in most age and sex groups but was not always statistically significant. The largest yearly reduction was seen in girls aged 4 to 10 years (0.2mg/day).

There was also a significant increase in the number of girls aged 11 to 18 years and women aged 19 to 64 years with iron intakes below the RDA. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) thinks iron deficiency anaemia is one of the most severe nutritional deficiencies globally with women and infants notably at risk even in the European region.

Iron deficiency anaemia affects around 1.48 billion people in 2015 with a lack of dietary iron estimated to cause approximately half of all anaemia cases globally.

In the same year, anaemia due to iron deficiency resulted in approximately 54,000 deaths –a decrease from the 213,000 deaths recorded in 1990.

But there could be some light at the end of this tunnel. Nestlé recently invested​ in new fortification technology called Ferri Pro with the aim to tackle iron deficiency. 

The tech, developed by researchers in New Zealand, is a 'novel protein-iron complex' that uses food-grade materials and a unique processing method to fortify foods without negatively affecting taste or colour.


Despite a recent push to increase fibre intake, average intakes over the nine years studied remained well below recommendations.

There was even a small decrease in fibre intake in all child age groups, however this decrease was only significant for those aged 4 to 10 years.

Interestingly, though, men aged 19 to 64 years showed a significant increase in fibre intake.

On average, Brits get only 18g of fibre a day – just over half the recommended intake of 30g a day. But Nutraingredients has been reporting on the recent mass market interest in fibre as consumers grow more aware of the importance of their gut health and the impact fibre has in this area.

Many health ingredients suppliers think fibre will be the next big health craze​ for 2019 and many new products​ with 'high fibre' claims are coming to market as a result. All this innovation brings hope that 2019 could be the year this issue is put into reverse.

Vitamin D

It's expected that vitamin D levels will be lower in winter months but what's more surprising is that this vitamin deficiency is getting worse.

In the period between January and March, nearly 20% of children aged 4 to 10, 37% of children aged 11 to 18 and nearly a third of all adults were at risk of vitamin D deficiency. 

Intake dropped over the nine year period with this being statistically significant for boys aged 11 to 18 years (2% per year) and adults aged 19 to 64 years (1%). 

Government advice was updated in 2016 to recommend that everyone over the age of 5 years should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10µg vitamin D during the autumn and winter months. Those younger than five were recommended to take a supplement every day throughout the year.

It seems consumers are starting to head this advice. Mintel recently revealed​ vitamin D has, for the first time, taken over vitamin C as the nation's favourite single vitamin supplement. The research shows that its use has rocketed to see it taken by 33% of all supplement users in the UK - up 6% since 2016.


New research​ led by the University of Illinois has argued that worldwide vitamin and mineral deficiencies will continue till 2050 unless nutritionally rich foods are made more available and affordable.

The report​ published in December last year in Nature Sustainability​ provides an analysis of the trajectory of diets from now until 2050 and shows that widespread inadequacies in calcium, vitamin D, vitamin E and folate are likely to continue.

CSIRO Nutrition Systems Scientist Dr Jessica Bogard, one of the authors of the study, argues that “we must refocus our efforts on dietary quality rather than quantity".

In all countries, the authors recommend better aligning agriculture with nutritional needs by investing in the availability and affordability of nutrient-rich foods, including vegetables, fruits, pulses, nuts and seeds.


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