A quarter of the young Kiwi women who took part in a nutritional survey are lacking in a vitamin essential for brain health.
Of the respondents in the Adult Nutrition Survey, 23% of females aged 19 to 30 did not get enough vitamin B12, essential for healthy blood and brain development.
The survey, funded by the Ministry of Health, was conducted by Otago University and looked into the eating habits of 4721 Kiwis.
Animal products like fish, meat, milk and eggs were the usual sources of B12, so vegans had a particularly raw deal, nutritional experts said. Although red meat was the best source, B12 was also added to products like Marmite and energy drinks.
"It is important for blood functions, so it matters most if you're a young woman and pregnant," survey director and lecturer Dr Winsome Parnell said.
"If it's not corrected in young women and they get pregnant, there's an increased risk of congenital birth defects."
Low B12 levels could also affect the ability to think if the deficiency went undetected for long periods, she said. But women were good at diagnosing deficiencies early through blood tests, because it usually correlated with iron deficiency, which was easier to detect, and supplements could then be taken.
Auckland University of Technology nutrition professor Elaine Rush said more needed to be done to protect foetuses from neural tube defects. B12 was as important as folate in preventing cognitive defects and was essential for healthy blood cells, she said.
Rush was involved in research in India, where children whose mothers were B12-deficient during pregnancy and breastfeeding, grew up with significant cognitive defects, she said.
The vitamin could be stored in the liver for years, so deficiency was not immediately evident, she said.
Parnell said researchers were requesting permission to analyse blood samples to show the extent of deficiencies in Kiwis.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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