Hidden hunger: the crucial health role of Omega 3 and Vitamin D
Inspired by new research, Professor Chris Elliott questions whether our lack of micronutrients should be another focal point for the National Food Strategy.
For some time I have read, thought and written about nutrition. I am not a nutritionist, but I hope I know enough about food science to make and pass on some informed views. What has really struck me more than anything else, is the exceedingly poor status of micronutrient in many of our diets and how this can have a massive and negative impact on our health.
This issue has been referred to as ‘hidden hunger’, affects several billion citizens across 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 diets. In this latest column, I concentrate on two extremely important micronutrients; Omega 3 fatty acids and Vitamin D1 as there has been striking new research published on both.
In terms of Omega 3, it is well documented the role these micronutrients play in our heart and brain health. However, the potential for these long chain fatty acids to have a role in preventing and possibly treating asthma has emerged quite recently.2 This is a disease which already affects hundreds of millions of people globally and is growing in scale year-after-year. It is also quite well documented that the amount of Omega 3 in our diets is decreasing and that vegans are generally very deficient in these micronutrients.3 I wonder whether these factors could be linked ie, the increase in asthma with the global decline in Omega 3 in our diet? Perhaps a topic for further research.
In the case of Vitamin D, we are all aware that we need this fat soluble vitamin to ensure healthy bones, muscles and teeth. However, probably many will be surprised that a lot of us are deficient in this essential micronutrient, especially children and those on a vegan diet who have been shown to have lower intakes than those on an omnivorous diet. What surprised me this week – and I suspect many others – is a study that showed over 40 percent of deaths due to respiratory disease can be attributed to either insufficiency or deficiency in Vitamin D.
I selected these two examples of hidden hunger as COVID-19 has been shown to attack the respiratory system and cause severe illness and death. This research on the relation between Omega 3 and Vitamin D levels and respiratory health therefore comes at a pinnacle time. It remains to be seen if deficiencies in these micronutrients are a contributing factor to those that suffered serve illnesses and death, but I put this forward as a hypothesis that perhaps needs to be tested.
The reasons that many of us lack these micronutrients in our diet is far from straight forward but needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Should this be another focal point for the National Food Strategy?
For those that feel comfortable because they already take supplements containing Omega 3 and Vitamin D, I suggest you feel a little less comfortable. The bioavailability, ie, the amount we can absorb into our bodies of many such supplements, does not come close to having them naturally present in our food.