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Dr Mary McCarthy: Make sure you have essential nutrients

Dr Mary McCarthy | Published:

In recent years, given the rising rates of obesity, there has been much talk about diet and a focus on the type of foods we are eating.

What we eat has a direct link to our health as the human body needs proteins, carbohydrates and fats as part of a balanced diet.

Foods also contain quantities of minerals and compounds that are essential to the functioning of the body but some are not naturally produced by the body.

The thyroid is a butterfly shaped gland in the neck which produces thyroxine; a hormone which influences body metabolism. Iodine is essential in the normal functioning of the thyroid gland. A lack of iodine in the diet and can lead to a condition called Goitre where there is a swelling in the neck as a result of an enlarged thyroid gland.

Historically, Goitre was a common occurrence in the Midlands in areas that were deficient in iodine in the soil and for this reason the condition was nicknamed Derbyshire Neck. Today, iodine deficiency across the world is the leading cause of thyroid swelling with over 90 per cent of cases resulting from this.

To counteract this, iodine is now commonly added to salt and other foods so the condition is no longer seen as frequently as it once was.

As well as thyroid functioning, iodine is needed in pregnancy and essential for the healthy development of the brain and nervous system as well as regulating the baby’s metabolism.

Iodine is needed in pregnancy for proper development of the thyroid gland and lack of it, in previous times, might mean babies would be born with severe learning disabilities.

Iodine is found in dairy products, eggs, vegetables, seafood, and brewer’s yeast and improvement to diets, as well as the availability of supplements in developing countries, has led to a decrease in the number of cases.

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Screening at or shortly after birth can now identify any cases and thyroxine is given as lifelong treatment to try and ensure normal physical and mental development.

Pregnancy is time where women need to be particularly careful about the nutrients they are getting. Iron is also essential to a baby’s development and it is often necessary for women to take iron supplements throughout pregnancy.

Similarly, it is advisable for women to take folic acid supplements for the first three months of pregnancy as lack of this is associated with problems with the nervous system of babies.

For those who are planning to start a family, it is advisable to start taking folic acid from the very beginning, ideally before they have conceived.

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Pregnant women also need adequate amounts of calcium in their diet, so that the growing baby has enough to make strong bones.

Dietary deficiencies can have a profound impact both on a population’s health and on the health of its future generations. Whilst we are very fortunate to live in a country where we have access to healthy food, supplements and medication, there are still instances where people are malnourished. There are still children going to school hungry in this country and the shocking stories of more and more people being reliant on food banks.

Considering the wealth in our country, these inequalities should not exist. More must be done to both raise awareness of nutrition whilst ensuring that those people less fortunate can have access to a healthy diet and supplements.

* Dr Mary McCarthy has worked at Belvidere Surgery in Shrewsbury for more than 20 years. She is chairman of the local medical committee and represents Shropshire, North Staffordshire and South Staffordshire on the General Practitioners Committee of the BMA.

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