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Experts reveal list of nutrients needed daily for optimal function

Do you hit the holy grail of five portions of fruit and veg a day? 

A shocking 70 per cent of us don’t, according to official figures – and, along with diets high in fat and sugar, it’s having a catastrophic effect on our health.

Now, a new report has revealed we actually need 45 nutrients every day for the body to function optimally.

However, it lays bare the UK’s health dilemma as it claims our low fruit and veg intake means many of us fail to get anywhere near the required amount. 

The World Health Organisation says there are strong links between low intakes of particular nutrients and the risk of developing chronic diseases including some cancers, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and depression.

And the number of people set to suffer from a chronic disease is predicted to soar by 57 per cent in the next two years alone. 

In a new nutrition report, published by the supplement brand Alive!, nutritionists have warned the UK is effectively heading for a health breakdown. 

Nutritionist Suzie Sawyer, who backed the report, said: ‘The human body needs to be properly fuelled to function at its best. We need around 45 different nutrients daily to run efficiently.

Do you hit the holy grail of five portions of fruit and veg a day? A shocking 70 per cent of us don’t, according to official figures – and, along with diets high in fat and sugar, it’s having a catastrophic effect on our health

‘And this is where cracks start to appear as all too many of us fail to get adequate intakes of vital nutrients – sometimes with large and potentially dangerous shortfalls.’

She adds: ‘Even marginal deficiencies can result in health problems.

‘And while most experts agree that a balanced diet is the best source of essential vitamins and minerals, this is rarely a practical option for many people because of hectic lifestyles, dietary preferences and individual circumstances.

‘Time and again we’re are told “just eat a balanced diet” – but the plain fact is people just don’t do that.’ 

Government research has shown that if our daily diets were better, staggering 70,000 premature deaths each year could be prevented.

In fact, poor dietary habits cost the NHS an estimated £5.8 billion a year, more than smoking (£3.3bn), alcohol (£3.3bn) and people being overweight and obese (£5.1 bn).

Now, experts are warning that while we’re living longer than ever before – and have better access to food than ever – the number of healthy years many of us enjoy before chronic disease strikes is falling.



A, D, E, K, C, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, Biotin, Folic Acid


Calcium, Chloride, Sodium, Molybdenum, Potassium, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Zinc, Selenium, Iodine, Vanadium, Cobalt, Silicon, Sulphur, Phosphorus, Chromium, Fluoride, Boron, Copper

ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS (PROTEIN): Leucine, Isoleucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Tryptophan, Valine, Histidine, Theonine

ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS: Linoleic acid; Alpha-linolenic acid

Carbohydrates (glucose)

‘We may be living longer, but it doesn’t mean we are living better – or that those extra years will be happy or healthy,’ says Suzie Sawyer, a clinical nutritionist based in Brighton and co-author of the new report, called Is The UK Heading for a Health Breakdown?

‘Many of our modern-day diseases are the result of poor nutrition and vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

‘The tragedy is that so many chronic health conditions could be prevented by eating a better diet.’

Specifically, official data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows:

• Levels of Vitamin D, which is mainly produced when the skin comes into contact with sunlight, are persistently low. And despite Public Health England advising supplementation of at least 10mcg a day, deficiency is still widespread.

• A substantial proportion of children aged 11-18 years have low intakes of all minerals – magnesium, potassium, zinc, selenium, calcium and iodine in particular.

• Iron intakes are low in women of all ages: 48 per cent of girls aged 11-18 years and 27 per cent of women aged 19-64 had low intakes.

• A large percentage of adults have lower than the recommended intakes of magnesium, potassium and selenium.

• All age groups have an average consumption of oily fish well below the recommended one portion (140g) per week.

The rise of Victorian diseases 

Experts are also warning that Victorian-era diseases are returning to the UK. Gout, malnutrition, rickets and scurvy are all on the rise due to poor diets and lifestyle habits.

Figures from NHS Digital show that hospital admissions for gout have risen by 78 per cent in five years, while admissions for malnutrition rose by 71 per cent over the same time frame.

Indeed, rickets, eradicated in the UK in the 1950s, has re-emerged as a public health threat. Doctors have revealed how a combination of child poverty and poor diet, together with a lack of sunlight and insufficient physical activity, has led to hundreds of new cases being diagnosed every year.

And in a recent study, University of Toronto researchers analysed UK hospital admissions and found that between 1997 and 2011 cases of rickets have almost doubled in the under 15s.

The Great British diet disaster 

So why are we in such a nutritional mess?

‘One of the biggest factors is our diet and the over consumption of fatty or sugary food and under-consumption of food rich in fibre and vital vitamins and minerals essential for good health,’ says GP Dr David Edwards.

So, what are we lacking? And why does it matter? 

‘The two nutrients of real concern of deficiency in the UK are folate and vitamin D3 – and these are the focus of campaigns by Public Health England,’ explains Suzie Sawyer. ‘But there are other areas where many of us are lacking.’


WHAT’S THE PROBLEM: Less than a third of all women in England take folic acid before pregnancy. Part of the reason may be that around half of pregnancies are unplanned.

WHY WE NEED IT: Folic acid is a type of vitamin B that helps the body produce red blood cells, and is crucial during the first weeks of pregnancy to help the baby’s brain and spinal cord develop. This is why all women trying for a baby or in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy are advised to take a folic acid supplement (400mcg daily) to help prevent birth defects like spina bifida.

All age groups have an average consumption of oily fish well below the recommended one portion (140g) per week

All age groups have an average consumption of oily fish well below the recommended one portion (140g) per week


WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? Around 20 per cent of adults have low readings for vitamin D. The main source of this vital vitamin is sunlight, but the UK climate means that between October and March levels can plummet badly and the NHS recommends that everyone now takes a daily supplement of 10mcg during autumn and winter. Those at high risk of deficiency (such as people with darker skins) are advised to take a supplement all year round.

WHY WE NEED IT: The vitamin’s main function is to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphorus in the body, crucial for healthy bones, teeth and muscles. Very low levels of vitamin D can, in extreme cases, lead to rickets in children.

Meanwhile, research published in the BMJ suggested that more than three million people could avoid colds and flu each year if they took vitamin D.

‘A low level of vitamin D has also been linked with some cancers, cardiovascular problems, asthma attacks, depression and multiple sclerosis,’ says Suzie Sawyer.


WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? Large numbers of girls and women are not achieving the recommended nutrient intake for iron.

WHY WE NEED IT: Low iron levels can lead to anaemia, with symptoms of tiredness, heart palpitations and shortness of breath. Anaemia can also be caused by vitamin B12 and folate deficiency, which are both needed to produce red blood cells.


WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? Official data shows people of all age-groups across the UK fail to meet World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for iodine intake. The trend for ditching dairy is also causing many people to be iodine deficient, says Suzie Sawyer. This is because cow’s milk is one of the best sources. Fish is another good source.

WHY WE NEED IT: ‘Iodine is essential for proper thyroid hormone function – which helps control the body’s metabolism,’ explains clinical pharmacist Mike Wakeman.

‘Iodine during pregnancy is vital for brain health of the developing foetus – and a child’s cognitive development in their early years.’

Research shows even a slight deficiency can lead to a lower IQ; children of the iodine-deficient mothers were more likely to have scores in the lowest quartile for verbal IQ, reading accuracy, and reading comprehension.

TOP TIP: Skip the organic milk – it’s 44 per cent lower in iodine than conventional milk, and long-life UHT milk is 27 per cent lower.


• Even if you do tuck into five portions of fruit and veg a day, modern farming methods mean you might not be getting all the nutrients you need. A Government report concluded that average concentrations of the trace minerals copper, magnesium, sodium, iron and potassium have significantly dropped in crops. Selenium levels in soil are also lower than they used to be

• ‘Research shows that popular weight-loss diets that cut out food groups such as red meat or dairy may also be contributing to micronutrient depletion,’ adds nutritionist Suzie Sawyer.

• Plant-based diets are not necessarily providing adequate nutrient intakes.

• Our ability to absorb nutrients declines with age; as we grow older we tend to produce less stomach acid, which impairs nutrient uptake

• Alcohol consumption, stress and smoking all stop our bodies from absorbing the right amounts of vitamins and minerals needed on a daily basis.

• The more ill-health within the population, the more medicines are prescribed – and these can affect nutrient absorption. For example, the most widely prescribed medicine for Type 2 diabetes, metformin, causes vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 is essential for energy production, healthy nerves and blood and the prevention of anaemia. Meanwhile many medicines prescribed for high blood pressure lead to deficiencies of vitamin D5 and potassium.


WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? A poll by the Alive! Supplement brand found that 20 per cent of Britons have no idea what selenium is. It’s what’s known as a trace mineral – a vital mineral needed in small amounts.

The richest food sources are Brazil nuts, kidney, liver and fish, but the foods that make the largest contribution to our selenium intake — because we eat proportionately more of them — are cereals, bread, meat and poultry.

However, because levels of selenium in our soil are low, cattle aren’t absorbing as much when they graze, nor are crops or other fresh produce grown on it.

As a result, there is less selenium available from meat, grains and vegetables.

WHY WE NEED IT: The body uses selenium to make ‘selenoproteins’, which work like antioxidants preventing damage to cells.

Lack of selenium could have a number of serious health implications such as an increased risk of coronary heart disease and certain cancers and heart disease, poor immunity, susceptibility to degenerative diseases, inflammatory problems, reduced male fertility and skin conditions such as eczema.


WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fat naturally found in oily fish like tuna, salmon and sardines. All age groups are advised to eat at least one portion of oily fish a week, with a cooked weight of 140g, but dietary data shows that consumption levels in the UK are a fraction of the target.

WHY WE NEED THEM: The body cannot make these essential fatty acids, so we must get them from our diet or via a supplement.

Studies have linked omega-3 fatty acids with a reduced risk of heart disease, some cancers, such as prostate and skin, improving mood and combating memory loss and dementia.


WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? Despite magnesium being found in many foods, especially green leafy vegetables, nuts and whole grains, studies show many people – including children – don’t make the recommended daily amount. This may be because magnesium tends to be lost during food preparation and cooking and/or because dietary intake of fruits and vegetables is so low in the UK.

WHY WE NEED IT: Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body. It plays a role in over 300 metabolic reactions and has a key role in maintaining normal heart rhythms, muscular contraction, muscle and nerve function, blood pressure control, glucose and insulin metabolism, and bone mass. A deficiency can leave you feeling totally drained of energy.