At 47, I consider myself in pretty good nick. I’m quite fit – I play squash, walk a lot and cycle. I get my five-a-day most days, plenty of fresh air and oily fish.
So why am I in a plush London clinic, having blood tests to detect possible vitamin and mineral deficiencies?
Because according to proponents of a new type of screening test, we could all benefit from food supplements. The aim, apparently, should not just be to ward off ill health but to maximise health by eliminating even slight deficiencies. You may feel fine but could you feel better?
To find out, I am having a £400 nutritional ‘check-up’ at Biolab, in Harley Street (the ‘screening test’ is also available at a small number of clinics across the UK).
Chris Newbold, a nutritionist who sends his clients to Biolab, says such testing can flag up ‘life-changing’ vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Adam Lee-Potter went for a £400 nutritional check-up at Biolab, in Harley Street
A former NHS paramedic who now works for BioCare (a supplements brand with no connection to Biolab), Chris tells me: ‘Virtually nobody eats the perfect diet. That’s where supplements come in, plugging the gaps and optimising health and energy levels.’
According to market researchers Mintel, sales of vitamins and supplements continue to rise
The mainstream view – and that of the NHS – is that if you eat properly, you don’t need supplements. But many Britons seem unconvinced. According to market researchers Mintel, sales of vitamins and supplements continue to rise. Now, nearly half the population is popping a vitamin pill every day.
So what exactly would a vitamin MoT be able to tell me? Curious, I sign myself up – much to the sceptical amusement of my father, a retired haematologist.
The screening tests (urine and blood samples) are, like any Harley Street test, not only expensive but extensive. There is the plasma mineral screen, checking my blood for minerals such as calcium, chromium and copper (£68); an iodine test (£36); vitamins A, C and E (£116); vitamin D (£40 – like vitamin B, tested separately as a different technique is required); B12 and folic acid (£55); and omega fatty acids (£80) – a grand total of £395.
This is the full check, as recommended by BioCare and sold as a package known as nutrition status panelling. Biolab also offers the individual tests separately. The mainstream view – and that of the NHS – is that if you eat properly, you don’t need supplements
In 30 minutes, my nurse has taken eight phials of blood. I exit via the waiting room, which is full of wealthy-looking business types and women in Gucci sunglasses.
Two weeks later, Chris shares the results with me.
Frankly, they are baffling. Apparently I am low in B2, alpha-carotene, iodine, magnesium, iron, vitamins B12, D and E and gamma tocopherol (an antioxidant associated with vitamin E), while my omega 5, a fatty acid, and my EPA ratio (an inflammation marker) are high.
The result: I may be suffering from fatigue, low energy levels and inflammation. This is news to me. I feel a little tired occasionally but what middle-aged man with young children doesn’t?
The devil is in the detail – and this is where you can see what makes the ‘deficiencies’ identified by such tests controversial.
My B12 – ‘slightly low’, Chris tells me – is 51 (measured in picomoles per litre). The healthy range as decreed by the NHS (the so-called reference range) is between 25.1 and 165. So according to the NHS, I am normal.
But Chris isn’t happy. ‘‘This could indicate depression or low energy,’ he tells me. ‘We could optimise your levels with supplements.’ Meanwhile, my iron (14.8, within the 14.3 to 38 reference range) is ‘slightly on the lower side’, says Chris.
And my iodine is apparently insufficient at 88. There is no official reference range for this, but Chris says: ‘It should be between 100 and 199. Iodine deficiency is common as there aren’t a lot of sources in the diet. You could be overweight, tired, have water retention, low libido, thinning hair and poor skin.’
Now, I don’t have a six-pack but I’m not overweight. I have hair and vim, and I tell Chris this. There is a pause. ‘You could,’ he tells me finally, ‘just be a frugal iodine user’.
My vitamin D is at the ‘very, very low end of average’ – 70, when the ideal reference range is 75 to 200.
‘This is typical,’ says Chris, ‘for people who work in an office and don’t see enough sunlight.’
But I pretty much live outside, I tell him.
My calcium reading is 2.24. The ideal range is between 2.1 and 2.6. ‘We could improve your calcium, which is associated with joint health and linked to multiple sclerosis risk,’ says Chris. Am I not, in fact, bang on there? ‘We could improve it,’ Chris says.
‘Why do we need to?’ I ask him. ‘Because we can,’ he replies.
I also have a ‘very clear need’ for omega 3 and 6 – and for more omega 3 in particular, as reflected in my raised arichodonic acid EPA ratio (the balance between omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, which is an inflammation marker – you don’t want too much omega 6).
At 32.91 (just over the ideal 30 mark, according to Chris’s figures), my reading is, I am told, an indication of ‘a poor intake of oily fish or fish oil’.
Raised inflammation, I am informed, can lead to pain. But while I do have a touch of arthritis, I have to quibble. Because as well as eating oily fish three times a week, I already take fish oil supplements every day.
‘Perhaps,’ says Chris, ‘your body just uses a lot.’
Chris prescribes a course of supplements for at least two months: daily, two pills of methyl multinutrient (a multivitamin) plus one drop of vitamin D, another called Biomulsion Omegaplex essential fats (two teaspoons), and three tablets of magnesium. The eight-week course would cost £156.25.
‘I would hope then,’ says Chris, ‘to see a general improvement in health, improvement to inflammation, increased levels of iron, magnesium, iodine and vitamin D, and also a better EPA ratio.’
There are medical problems that can stem from vitamin deficiencies. One common example is iron-deficiency anaemia, which causes symptoms such as fatigue, breathlessness and pale skin.
But when I run my ‘deficiencies’ past Ahmed Ahmed, clinical lead in bariatric (weight loss) surgery at St Mary’s Hospital in London, he is not convinced.
He often prescribes vitamin supplements because it can be hard for his patients to get all their nutritional needs from their dramatically reduced food intake. ‘In my opinion, the supplements you have been recommended are not necessary,’ he says. ‘Certainly the statement about correcting your ratio of various fatty acid levels to improve your cardiovascular risk – in other words, your heart health – has no scientific basis.
‘Most of your results were within normal range or off by a fraction. And many vitamin and mineral levels change day to day.’
He suggests some of the tests are unnecessary, too.
‘I have never known of anyone checking for vitamin B2 before,’ he says. ‘When B1 is normal and B12 is fine, your B2 just won’t be low. It’s unheard of. All the B vitamins come from the same food sources, such as meat.
‘Copper and zinc are good health indicators. Yours are normal.’
Professor Toby Richards, a vascular surgeon at London’s Royal Free Hospital and world expert on iron deficiency, shares Mr Ahmed’s doubts.
‘I would only prescribe a good, balanced diet, exercise three times a week, no smoking and not too much alcohol,’ he says.
My father puts it even more succinctly: ‘It’s all cobblers.’
While the mainstream view is that Biolab’s expensive prescription will be of little benefit, will it do me any harm?
A basic multivitamin is unlikely to do any damage, according to Candace Bovill, a dietitian who works for Imperial College NHS Healthcare Trust, in London.
She agrees that we should be able to access all the nutrients we need from our diet – with one exception. My vitamin D result is a little low. Concerns about vitamin D deficiency led to Public Health England recently advising that all adults should consider a supplement in autumn and winter. I’ll give it a go.
Chris, meanwhile, disagrees with Mr Ahmed’s comments about omega 3s and B2.
A spokesperson from the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association adds, on behalf of BioCare: ‘In an ideal world, our diet would provide us with all the vitamins and minerals our bodies needed. However, evidence from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows a large proportion of the UK falls well behind the recommended daily intakes of many essential nutrients.’