Fertility and pregnancy * Women's health * Healthy living

Half of women in UK lacking in vitamin A

Young women especially at risk

Almost half of women in the UK may not be getting enough vitamin A because of a previously unknown genetic variation, new research has found.

The vitamin is found "preformed" in dairy foods, eggs and milk. But in some orange coloured vegetables, such as carrots, vitamin A has to be converted by the body from beta-carotene, the pigment which gives carrots their orange colour.

However, research carried out by scientists at Newcastle University suggests that around half of UK women have a variation in their genes which reduces their ability to convert beta-carotene into the vitamin.

From a group of 62 women, the team found that 29 of them (47%) carried the genetic variation which prevented them from being able to effectively convert beta-carotene into vitamin A.

Past research has shown that too much vitamin A taken as supplements during pregnancy can lead to birth defects, so beta carotene was recommended instead, as the body could convert it from beta-carotene when required.

But this latest research has shown that many women cannot rely on beta carotene as a substitute for vitamin A.

Dr George Lietz, who led the study, said: "Vitamin A is incredibly important – particularly at this time of year when we are all trying to fight off the winter colds and flu.

"It boosts our immune system and reduces the risk of inflammation such as that associated with chest infections.

"What our research shows is that many women are simply not getting enough of this vital nutrient because their bodies are not able to convert the beta-carotene."

The results, published in this month's FASEB journal, also found that the women obtained about a third of their recommended intake from 'preformed' vitamin A – found in dairy products such as eggs and milk. This meant that the women with the genetic variation were not eating enough foods containing the vitamin to reach the level their body required to function.

"Worryingly, younger women are at particular risk," said Dr Lietz.

"The older generations tend to eat more eggs, milk and liver which are naturally rich in vitamin A, whereas the health-conscious youngsters on low-fat diets are relying heavily on the beta-carotene form of the nutrient."

The scientists have now turned their attention to men, to find out if they also carry the genetic variation.

This article was published on Thu 19 November 2009

Image © sylada - Fotolia.com

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