The 5 Most Common Nutrient Deficiencies: Are You at Risk?
A third of all Americans are low in the vitamins and minerals necessary for good health. It may be hard to believe that we don’t get enough nutrition given the abundance of food that’s available 24/7, but it’s true. 31 percent of people in the United States are at risk for a deficiency in at least one vitamin or mineral essential for good health. Could you be one of them?
Nutrient Deficiencies: Why you should be concerned
Should you be concerned about being low in one or two vitamins or minerals? In a word, yes. That’s because vitamins and minerals are essential for optimal health. Being low may not cause immediate symptoms, but it puts you at risk for many serious diseases that can affect your brain, heart, blood, immune system, metabolism, bones, not to mention your mental health. Nutrients are the key pieces your body needs to properly maintain all of your physiological systems. Missing just one or two pieces can throw off the delicate balance you need to be healthy and feel great. That’s because most nutrients don’t have just one vital role to play within your body, they play many, many vital roles.
Nutrient Deficiencies: How can you tell if you’re affected?
The truth is, it’s not always obvious when you suffer from low levels of important vitamins and minerals. Sometimes symptoms aren’t felt for a long time and sometimes they’re very vague and non-specific. For example, fatigue, irritability, aches and pains, decreased immune function, hair loss, and heart palpitations can be signs of many things, including a nutrient deficiency.
Here are the five most commonly deficient nutrients, some of their more obvious symptoms, and the foods that are high in each of these nutrients:
The number one most common nutrient deficiency in the US is Vitamin B6. This vitamin is important for your blood, brain, and metabolism. Vitamin B6 helps the formation of hemoglobin in the blood (the part that carries oxygen around). It also helps to maintain normal levels of homocysteine (high levels of homocysteine are linked with heart disease). In addition, this vitamin plays an important role in the production of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers allowing nerve cells to communicate with each other). Not to mention the fact that it’s also involved with over 100 enzyme reactions in the body, mostly for metabolism.
Some of the main symptoms of a severe deficiency in Vitamin B6 are depression, confusion, convulsions, and a type of anemia called “microcytic” anemia. Associated complications of severe Vit B6 deficiency are no less serious. They include increased risk of heart disease and Alzheimer’s. These wide-ranging health effects are why Vitamin B6 is so essential for health.
Vitamin B6 is found in all food groups. Vitamin B6 is also found in high quantities in potatoes, non-citrus fruits (e.g., bananas), and various animal-based foods such as poultry, fish, and organ meats. People who eat high-fiber cereals tend to have higher levels of the vitamin because cereals are often fortified with it.
Like Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12 is also very important for your blood and brain. It is needed for the creation of healthy red blood cells and the formation of the outer coating of nerve cells (myelin) which is very important for their optimal functioning.
Vitamin B12 can be a bit difficult to absorb from your food. To improve absorption, it’s important to have adequate acid and digestive enzymes in the stomach. This is because Vitamin B12 is very strongly bound to the proteins in food, requiring stomach acid and enzymes help to break those bonds and free the vitamin so your body can take it in.
Having a Vitamin B12 deficiency can be caused by a type of anemia called “pernicious” anemia. Pernicious anemia is an autoimmune disease that affects the stomach and reduces its ability to absorb Vitamin B12. A deficiency in Vitamin B12 can then lead to a different type of anemia called “megaloblastic” anemia. Low levels of Vitamin B12 can also cause neurological damage (due to impaired myelination of nerve cells).
Vitamin B12 isn’t naturally present in most plant-based foods, except it is found in some nutritional yeast products. It is naturally found in dairy, eggs, fish, poultry and meat and is particularly high in clams, beef liver, trout, and salmon. Many breakfast cereals are fortified with Vitamin B12. If you are consuming Vitamin B12 supplements or eating foods that are fortified with Vitamin B12, absorption is enhanced because the Vitamin B12 is not as tightly bound to protein as it is in natural food sources.
Vitamin C is important for wound healing (via a protein called collagen), the production of neurotransmitters, metabolism, and the proper functioning of the immune system. Vitamin C also acts as an antioxidant to reduce the damage caused by free radicals that can worsen several diseases such as certain cancers and heart disease. Vitamin C also helps your body absorb the essential mineral iron, which is another one of the top five nutrient deficiencies included in this article.
Vitamin C is necessary for the stimulation of collagen production. Collagen is a vital component of connective tissue, which explains some of the symptoms associated with the Vitamin C deficiency disease called scurvy. Symptoms of scurvy include weak connective tissue such as bleeding, wounds that won’t heal, and even the loss of teeth.
You can get Vitamin C from many fruits and vegetables. Foods particularly high in Vitamin C include bell peppers, oranges, and orange juice. Other good sources of the vitamin include kiwifruit, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, tomato juice, cantaloupe, cabbage, and cauliflower. Vitamin C is not naturally present in grains, but some breakfast cereals are fortified with it.
When choosing foods for Vitamin C, choose the freshest options because levels of the vitamin naturally reduce over time the longer the food is stored. Try, as much as possible, to eat Vitamin C-rich foods raw. If you do cook them, then choose steaming instead of prolonged boiling because the vitamin is destroyed by heat and is water-soluble.
Vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” is for strong bones. It promotes the absorption of the mineral calcium. When your body has enough calcium, it can maintain normal bone mineralization and prevent problems in the muscles that lead to cramps and spasms. Getting enough Vitamin D and calcium can also help protect against osteoporosis. Without enough Vitamin D bones can become thin, brittle, or misshapen. Vitamin D prevents these issues known as rickets (in children) and osteomalacia (in adults). In addition to its essential role in bone and muscle health, Vitamin D also helps to reduce inflammation and modulate both immune function and sugar metabolism.
Sensible sun exposure (10-15 minutes of sun exposure without sun block) enables your skin to make Vitamin D. which is the most efficient way of getting it. Very few foods naturally contain Vitamin D and our bodies cannot produce without the benefit of sunlight. These Vitamin D-rich foods include fatty fish and fish liver oils (e.g., salmon, trout, cod liver oil). Other foods that naturally contain small amounts of Vitamin D include egg yolks, beef liver, and cheddar cheese. Some mushrooms can contain Vitamin D—particularly those exposed to UV light.
Most of the dietary Vitamin D that people in the US get is from fortified foods and beverages. These include some dairy products (mainly milk), certain plant milks (e.g., soy, almond, or oat milks), various breakfast cereals, and a few types of orange juice. Be sure to look at the nutrition labels to see if and how much Vitamin D is in each serving of the food or beverage.
Iron is an essential mineral due to its vital role in transporting oxygen throughout your body every second of every day. This happens via a compound in your red blood cells called “hemoglobin.” Iron also supports your muscles (as does Vitamin D) and your connective tissue (as does Vitamin C). Having adequate iron is necessary for physical growth, neurological development, hormone production, and the function of your cells.
A deficiency in iron is commonly known as “anemia.” Menstruating women tend to be lower in iron simply because of their regular loss of blood. Most iron in the body is in the blood, but there is some stored in the liver, spleen, bone marrow, and muscles. This is why iron deficiency progresses slowly from depleting your stores (mild iron deficiency), to reducing the number of red blood cells (marginal iron deficiency), before you get to full-out iron deficiency anemia.
Iron is naturally found in many foods in one of two forms: heme and nonheme. Animal-based foods contain the more absorbable heme form. Plant-based foods naturally contain nonheme iron. This is where Vitamin C comes in. Vitamin C helps your body absorb the nonheme iron from plants, which is why, if plants are a main source of iron in your diet, it’s important to combine iron-rich plants with Vitamin C-rich plants in the same meal. Some of the best sources of iron include fortified cereals, oysters, white beans, dark chocolate, beef liver, lentils, spinach, and tofu.
Vitamins and minerals are called “essential” for a reason: they truly are essential for optimal health. Your body needs these important nutrients to function correctly and if you are low in those nutrients, your physical and mental health may be affected. Eating a nutrient-rich diet with a variety of foods can help you achieve your health and nutrition goals.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can assess your nutrient status or suspect that you may suffer from a nutrient deficiency, please contact us.
Bird, J. K., Murphy, R. A., Ciappio, E. D., & McBurney, M. I. (2017). Risk of Deficiency in Multiple Concurrent Micronutrients in Children and Adults in the United States. Nutrients, 9(7), 655. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9070655
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2020, February 28). Iron fact sheet for health professionals.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2020, February 4). Vitamin B6 fact sheet for health professionals.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2020, March 30). Vitamin B12 fact sheet for health professionals.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2020, February 27). Vitamin C fact sheet for health professionals.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2020, October 9). Vitamin D fact sheet for health professionals.
The contents of this blog are intended for educational purposes only. The information presented here is not a substitute for proper medical attention, diagnosis, or treatment by a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare provider before starting or making any changes to an existing treatment plan, exercise program or dietary regimen, and before using nutritional supplements.
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