Cork-based scientists are leading the first international EU-funded study on how to compensate for low levels of sunshine by adjusting your diet.
Lack of sunshine is bad for your health. That’s because sunshine gives you vitamin D, essential for strong bones and even protection against depression, colds and flu and possibly certain cancers.
So how can we make up for getting so little of it in the dark Irish winter? With €6 million from the European Commission, an international research team led and coordinated by scientists from University College Cork are carrying out Europe’s first fully comparable evaluation of vitamin D levels and diet.
“The research project is progressing very well,” say joint project coordinators Mairead Kiely and Kevin Cashman from UCC. “We will soon have the latest information on dietary intakes by European populations and the specific vitamin D requirements of pregnant women, children, adolescents and ethnic adults.”
While sunshine is the easiest way of getting vitamin D, it is also found in certain foods such as fish, egg yolks and grains. Food manufacturers are also able to boost the vitamin D in their products by adding it in at the production stage. The question is how much of it to add in to your diet? Exactly how much does a pregnant woman need? Or an older person? Or a teenager? This study aims to give exact answers to these questions.
The research team is hopeful that there could soon be new public health strategies and innovative fortified foods to increase vitamin D in the food supply.
Why vitamin D deficiency matters: Vitamin D, the so-called ‘sunshine vitamin’, is produced by the body in response to skin exposure to summer sunlight, but can also be found in certain food products, such as fish, egg yolks and fortified dairy products and grains. The vitamin is essential for a number of body functions, including strong bones, because it helps the body use calcium.
Indeed, recent research has underlined the importance of vitamin D in protecting against a host of health problems, and also helped to identify certain categories of people at particular risk of vitamin D deficiency. These include, in particular, people unable to get enough sun, but also others who might have low dietary intakes, such as those suffering from milk allergies or following strict vegan diets.
“While vitamin D can be synthesised in skin on exposure to summer sunlight, this happens much less in winter months, which can range from two to six months of the year depending on where in Europe you are based,” explains Cashman. “Furthermore, in summer, standard public health advice is to avoid over-exposure due to concerns over skin damage and cancer.”
This is why the project is focusing on the dietary supply of vitamin D. Diet supplies vitamin D year round, but intakes in Europe are generally low due to the fact that relatively few foods are rich sources of vitamin D. The amount of vitamin D in foods can be enhanced by fortification.
“Having good, accurate information on the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency across Europe is the first important step in devising food-based strategies for its prevention,” Cashman points out.
It is not currently possible to accurately estimate the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency across Europe, due to different analytical techniques and conflicting definitions of vitamin D sufficiency. The ODIN project is addressing this knowledge gap by measuring the distribution of a specific biomarker of vitamin D status (known as 25OHD) across representative samples of the whole European population. This will allow for more meaningful comparisons.
The information will enable the project team to achieve an accurate picture for the first time, and identify the relative contributions of sun and dietary sources of vitamin D to specific population groups.
In support of planned revisions of vitamin D recommendations by the European Food Safety Authority, ODIN will carry out three targeted trials in pregnant women, children and teenagers, along with a fourth trial in ethnic immigrant groups. This will provide data to help specify vitamin D intake requirements. Data on vitamin D and health associations will come on stream in the latter part of ODIN.