Nutrient Displacement & Processed Foods

Nutrient Displacement & Processed Foods

Nutrient displacement is the term to describe the displacement of nutrient-rich foods with processed, low-nutrient foods in the diet. It is becoming ever more common in the modern diet, with the prevalence of highly processed, quick to prepare foods. Modern society is demanding more of our time, so preparing healthy meals is something may suffer due to time and budget limitations. Unfortunately, this means that often nutrient-rich foods are being displaced with more convenient foods which often lack key nutrients.

National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) Findings

Food trends have been the subject of surveys and studies on a national scale for a number of years, and these trends have proven hugely important to understand the prevalence of nutrient displacement in the UK. The findings of the NDNS also outline the different intake levels of vitamins, minerals, meat, fruit and vegetables, sugar and fat.

Startlingly, the findings of the NDNS revealed that the proportion of survey respondents eating the recommended 5 portions of fruit and vegetables daily was very low. In fact, only 8% of children aged 11 to 18 years were meeting the 5-a-day recommended intake and 27% of adults aged 19-64 years. Interestingly, adults over 65 years were more likely to eat 5 portions a day, but still only 35% were meeting the recommendations. This figure did not change much over time, or across gender.

Oily fish intake was also largely below the recommendation of one portion a week, with adults across the board failing to meet this requirement. However, mean intake of red meat and processed meat has decreased over time. Although adult men aged 19 and over are more likely to exceed the recommended consumption of red and processed meat.

These findings show that UK adults are failing to meet the recommended dietary intake of many foods which naturally contain essential vitamins and minerals. Similarly, vitamin and mineral deficiencies were common in adults, particularly Iron, Vitamin A and Vitamin D.

Effects of Nutrient Displacement

Nutrient displacement can have negative effects that go beyond simple lack of nutrients, meaning that people can feel full, but ultimately be malnourished. This can be because people choose unhealthy options more often than healthy options, sometimes this is because they crave the energy boost from a cup of coffee or sugary snack. When this is the case, the energy produced is short-lived, and the food eaten fills you up, but for short periods of time. This means the foods are providing a ‘quick fix’ but not providing vitamins or minerals necessary for health.

This can lead to excessive intake of sugars, fats and carbohydrates, which, when moderately consumed can provide you with vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. However, when these foods are the primary dietary staples, it could lead to negative consequences. The most common consequence of this type of nutrient displacement is obesity and undernutrition.

Obesity and undernutrition can lead to health problems, particularly a decrease in energy levels and other complications relating to vitamin deficiencies. As the NDNS showed, many people are deficient in Vitamin D, which can have a large impact on overall health. Vitamin D is hugely important for mental health, energy levels and bone density.

Given that few of those surveyed for the NDNS consumed the recommended 5 servings of fruit and vegetables per day, most will have micronutrient deficiencies which fruit and vegetables contain. Fruits and vegetables contain: magnesium, potassium, folic acid, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and fibre. Each of these minerals and vitamins are important for overall health and low levels of them can have negative impacts on health, ranging from cell health and function, blood pressure and overall health.

How to combat nutrient displacement

There are ways to combat nutrient displacement and its complications, which often involve substituting one food with another. Cutting out an entire food is not necessary, as everything is good in moderation. Do you love carbs? If you do, then you don’t need to cut them out completely, just opt for wholegrain over processed and white carbs. Processed carbohydrates such as white bread often contain added sugar and salt, which provide little nutritional benefits. Not only that, but when flour is processed it loses most of its nutrients.

Most people crave sugar, and often the sugary food opted for are sweets, biscuits or chocolate. Again, there is no need to completely erase chocolate from your diet but you could supplement a milk chocolate bar for raw cacao which are high in antioxidants and lower blood pressure. Similarly, apples contain high levels of natural sugar and fibre, giving you both an energy boost and providing the fibre you need to keep your intestines healthy.

As such, making choices can have a huge impact on your vitamin and mineral intake, eating a balanced diet and preventing negative consequences of nutrient displacement.

Supplements most adults need

As the NDNS concluded, there are a number of key vitamins and minerals that adults are deficient in. There are certain vitamin and mineral supplements which can be taken by those who eat healthy, balanced diet. This section will outline some of the supplements that most adults can use to maintain their overall health and welfare.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is hugely prevalent, even in people who eat a healthy, balanced diet, because the UK does not get long, sunny days. Vitamin D is important for many aspects of health, by contributing to the absorption of calcium, which is important for healthy bones. Not only that, but Vitamin D aids with the proper functioning of the immune system and helps reduce inflammation.


Most adults had a intake of selenium that fell below the recommended daily intake, and can only be found in a number of foods. Selenium is found in its highest amounts in Brazil nuts but is also found in mushrooms, garlic and eggs. Selenium is also important in the functioning of healthy immune systems, and works as an antioxidant.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is found primarily in vegetables, egg yolks and oily fish, and the NDNS found that most people’s daily intake of vegetables and oily fish fell below the recommended amounts. That means there was a large chance of Vitamin A deficiency, which plays a role in maintaining eyesight, strengthening the immune system and metabolising iron. A Vitamin A supplement is therefore important for healthy and normal functioning of the body.

Nutrient displacement is a common dietary issue in our modern society. We are constantly surrounded by cheap and convenient foods, which makes it so easy to grab the sweet and salty snack when you’re hungry. Unfortunately, many of these foods lack the essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients required to have stay healthy. With a small decision changes and perhaps some supplements, it is possible to combat and change the pattern of nutrient displacement.


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