The nutritional deficiencies of the Belgian population
Adopting a varied, healthy, and balanced diet is the goal. But what is the reality? Are Belgians adopting good eating habits?
Belgian food consumption surveys
Countries regularly organize national surveys to collect data to adapt and evaluate the nutritional intake of the population. These surveys allow following the changes and nutritional habits of a given population. The first Belgian national food consumption survey took place in 2004. The data reported in this article are from the second national survey that took place between 2014 and 2015. The next survey will be conducted in 2022.
Overview of the main dietary deficiencies in Belgium
Calcium is an essential mineral for mineralization and skeleton formation. It is the most abundant mineral in the body. Calcium is mainly found in dairy products. However, intestinal absorption, i.e., the time at which the body uses the ingested calcium, remains low, around 40%.
The average daily calcium intake is around 711 mg for women in the Belgian population. However, the recommended daily intake by health authorities is around 800 mg. Thus, 63% of women do not meet the recommended average daily requirement.
Iron, a mineral that allows the transport of oxygen in the body, also contributes to the immune system’s normal functioning and a reduction of fatigue. Black pudding, clams, and heifer liver are the foods of choice for a good supply of iron in the body.
Belgian women consume an average of 8.36 mg of iron per day. The health authorities recommend a daily intake of 14 mg of iron. The survey of food consumption in Belgium shows that only 4% of women respect the defined quantities in terms of reference intakes.
Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, is known to contribute to the normal functioning of the nervous system and psychological functions. An increased deficiency of vitamin B1 manifests itself by a nervous syndrome also called “beriberi disease”.
Even though adult women should consume 1.1 mg of thiamine per day, in Belgium, the average usual intake of women is close to 0.87 mg. Thus, only 20% of the population has an adequate intake. Dietary yeast and poultry liver are preferred foods.
Vitamin B2, or riboflavin, plays a central role in the body. It contributes to good energy metabolism, to the normal functioning of the nervous system, and helps reduce fatigue. Foods such as calf’s liver, offal, or milk help meet the body’s needs.
The Belgian diet provides women with 1.12 mg of vitamin B2 per day. This means that 38% of Belgian women respect the recommended intake. The inclusion of food supplements in the daily intake increases this percentage to 44%.
Vitamin B6 acts in synergy with magnesium. This means that when taken together, these nutrients reinforce each other and have a greater effect. When vitamin B6 comes from animal food sources its assimilation becomes better than when it comes from vegetable sources. Thus, people with a vegetarian or vegan diet are more likely to suffer from a vitamin B6 deficiency.
The Belgian diet for women provides 1.34 mg of vitamin B6. For adult women, the diet should provide 2 mg of vitamin B6 daily. Only 20% of women respect this recommendation because of their diet. Considering a dietary supplement increases this figure to 32%.
Vitamin B9, or folic acid, is the vitamin known to all pregnant women or those who want to become pregnant. It contributes to the growth of maternal tissues such as the placenta and the uterus. During pregnancy, a deficiency in vitamin B9 leads to malformations in the nervous system of the fetus.
This vitamin is particularly found in chicken liver and vegetables such as romaine lettuce, spinach, or asparagus. In Belgium, the daily diet provides women with 187 µg of vitamin B9, whereas health authorities recommend 200 µg daily and up to 400 µg during pregnancy. Thus, no less than 78% of women have intakes below the average needs.
Vitamin C is known to contribute to the good functioning of the immune system as winter approaches. Fruits such as blackcurrant, kiwi, or strawberry provide important quantities of vitamin C. Insufficient consumption of fruits and vegetables leads to scurvy, a disease that causes severe fatigue.
Currently, about half of the Belgian population between 3 and 64 years of age has a vitamin C intake below the average requirement. Young adults are at greater risk of having insufficient vitamin C intakes. So, remember to include at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables in your daily meals.
Vitamin D can be made by the skin as a result of exposure to sunlight. However, depending on the duration of exposure, skin pigmentation, or age, the synthesis capacity differs.
Health authorities recommend a daily intake of 5 µg. Women’s diets provide 3.47 µg. However, women are aware of the lack of vitamin D and consume more food supplements. Thus, with supplements, their intake becomes sufficient. Be careful to note that beyond 50 µg per day, there is a risk of too high intakes.
According to the latest Belgian study on food consumption conducted in 2014, the intake of some nutrients does not meet the needs of the body. Thus, it is necessary to consume more dairy products to increase the intake of calcium, but also vitamin B6. Increased consumption of fruits and vegetables will meet the needs of vitamin C. Vitamins B1, B6, and B9 can be provided by a higher proportion of cereal products in the daily diet. It should also be noted that despite the use of food supplements for vitamin D, the intake remains insufficient. However, be careful not to exceed the maximum tolerable intake.
Key take-home messages
- 63% of women do not meet the recommended average daily calcium requirement
- Only 4% of women meet the reference intake for iron
- The usual average intake for women of vitamin B1 is not sufficient to meet the recommended daily intake
- 38% of Belgian women meet the recommended intake of vitamin B2
- Only 20% of women meet the recommended intake of vitamin B6
- As many as 78% of women have intakes below the average requirement for vitamin B9
- Young adults are more likely to have inadequate vitamin C intakes
- Dietary supplements can guarantee sufficient intake of vitamin D for women. However, beware of the risk of excess.