Inspired by new research, Professor Chris Elliott asks whether our micronutrient deficiencies should be another focus of the National Food Strategy.
I have been reading, thinking and writing about nutrition for some time. I’m not a nutritionist, but I hope I know enough about food science to make and pass on some informed views. What really impressed me more than anything is the extremely poor status of micronutrients in many of our diets and how this can have massive and negative effects on our health.
This problem has been known as “hidden hunger”, affects billions of people around the world, and is unknown to many of the population. The cause is a chronic lack of essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals in our diet. In this latest column, I focus on two extremely important micronutrients. Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D.1 Notable new research has been published on both.
In terms of omega 3, the role these micronutrients play in our heart and brain health is well documented. However, the potential of these long chain fatty acids to play a role in the prevention and possibly treatment of asthma has only recently emerged.2 This is a disease that affects hundreds of millions of people around the world and is increasing every year. It’s also pretty well documented that the amount of omega 3 in our diet is decreasing and that vegans are generally very deficient in these micronutrients.3 I wonder if these factors could be linked, i.e. the increase in asthma with the global decrease in omega 3 in our diet. Maybe a topic for further research.
In the case of vitamin D, we are all aware that we need this fat-soluble vitamin to keep bones, muscles and teeth healthy. However, it is likely that many will be surprised that many of us do not have this essential micronutrient, especially children and those who are vegan and have been shown to have a lower intake than those who are on an omnivorous diet. What surprised me this week – and I suspect many others – is a study that showed that over 40 percent of deaths from respiratory disease are due to either an insufficiency or deficiency in vitamin D.
I chose these two examples of hidden hunger because COVID-19 has been shown to attack the respiratory tract, causing serious illness and death. This research on the relationship between omega-3 and vitamin D levels and respiratory health is therefore coming to a climax. It remains to be seen whether a deficiency in these micronutrients will contribute to those suffering from disease and death, but I present this as a hypothesis that may need to be tested.
The reasons why many of us lack these micronutrients in our diets are far from simple, but they urgently need to be addressed. Should this be another focus of the National Food Strategy?
For those who feel good because they are already taking omega 3 and vitamin D supplements, I recommend that you feel a little less comfortable. The bioavailability, ie the amount that we can absorb into our body from many such food supplements, does not come close to the natural presence in our food.