8 Common Nutrient Deficiencies
Feeling tired, sluggish or having difficulty concentrating?
“Many of us are lacking essential micronutrients in our diets,” said Dr. Bainbridge. “Certain deficiencies can be the reason you’re feeling ‘off,’ and—if prolonged—can lead to even more serious health issues.”
Micronutrients, more commonly referred to as vitamins and minerals, are not produced in the body. Instead, our bodies rely on our diets to get the right amounts of these nutrients.
“If our diets are lacking important micronutrients, so are certain functions of the body,” said Dr. Bainbridge.
Having low levels of key vitamins and minerals can interfere with hormone levels, metabolism, digestion and more. And, at least half of children worldwide ages 6 months to 5 years suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies, and globally more than 2 billion people, according to the CDC.
It’s possible to be deficient in one or several areas at a time. Below are 8 of the most common nutrient deficiencies, and what foods you can add into your diet to increase nutrient levels.
- Calcium – If a parent encouraged you to drink your milk growing up, there’s a reason why. Calcium, found in dairy products like milk and cheese, is essential for building strong bones and maintaining muscle and nerve function. Other great sources of calcium are nuts, beans and dark leafy vegetables such as kale, broccoli or collard greens. Signs you may need more calcium include extreme fatigue and, overtime, osteoporosis. The RDA for men and women ages 19-50 is 1,000 mg/day; men ages 51-70 is 1,000 mg/day; men over the age of 70 and women over the age of 50 is 1,200 mg/day. It is important to note that excessive calcium from supplements does not provide extra bone protection.
- Iron- Iron is a mineral critical for motor and cognitive development, according to the CDC. An iron deficiency can cause pale skin, dizziness, fatigue and more. In the case of a severe iron deficiency, patients can develop anemia—which is dangerous if prolonged. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the effects of iron deficiencies, as anemia is a major risk factor in both maternal and newborn mortality rates. Dietary sources of iron are iron-fortified cereals, beef, beans, lentils, spinach and raisins. Expecting mothers should discuss the option of taking iron supplements during pregnancy with their doctor. The RDA for women 19-50 is 18 mg/day (27 mg/day if pregnant, 8 if breastfeeding); women 51 and older is 8 mg/day; and men 19 and older is 8 mg/day. Excess iron can damage your liver and cause other complications.
- Vitamin D – Vitamin D is essential for bone health and mental wellbeing. Researchers are studying vitamin D for its possible connections to several medical conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis. More research is needed to fully understand the effects of vitamin D on these conditions, according to MedlinePlus.gov. Softening of the bones(which is rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults), which causes weak bones, bone pain and muscle weakness in adults, are symptoms of a deficiency. Good sources of vitamin D include fortified milk or yogurt, fatty fish such as salmon or tuna, egg yolk and liver, and plenty of time spent outdoors in the sunshine (but don’t forget the SPF!). RDA for ages 1-70 is 600 IU/day; for those 71 and older it is 800 IU/day.
- Potassium – Potassium is critical for nerve, muscle and heart health. Many of us become temporarily potassium deficient after a bout of sickness, especially if we’ve experienced any vomiting, diarrhea or excess sweating. Symptoms of a potassium deficiency include weakness, constipation and tingling or numbness. Foods with high levels of potassium include bananas, whole grains, milk, vegetables, beans and peas. Since deficiency is rare, an RDA has not been established, but the recommended intake is 4,700 mg/day for adults and the elderly.
- Vitamin B12– Vitamin B12 is crucial for a healthy brain and immune system. It helps create DNA, red blood cells and nerve cells, and is a key element in a well-functioning metabolism. People with a vitamin B12 deficiency can experience fatigue, breathlessness, memory loss and more. Several animal-based products like eggs, meat, shellfish and dairy contain high levels of vitamin B12. Plant foods have no vitamin B12 unless they are fortified, so vegetarians and vegans may have an increased risk of developing this deficiency. Many breakfast cereals are fortified, so check the food label. Many older adults do not have the specific acid in their stomach to absorb the vitamin B12 naturally present in food, so they rely more on fortified foods and dietary supplements to get enough. The RDA is 2.4 mg/day for men and women, 2.6 mg/day for pregnant women and 2.8 mg/day for lactating women.
- Folate – Folate—or folic acid— is critical for women of childbearing age. A severe folate deficiency during pregnancy can be detrimental to a growing baby, as low levels of this vitamin are linked to neural tube defects such as spina bifida. This is why prenatal vitamins include high doses of folate. Symptoms of a folate deficiency include fatigue, mouth sores and hair, skin or nail changes. Foods containing high levels of folate include fortified cereals, beans, lentils and leafy greens. The RDA is 400 mg/day for both women and men; 600 mg/day for pregnant women and 500 mg/day for lactating women.
- Magnesium- Magnesium helps maintain healthy nerve and muscle function, and also helps keep the heart and bones strong. Not having enough magnesium can cause mood levels to drop and physical symptoms like numbness, cramps or abnormal heart rhythms. Early signs of deficiency may include loss of appetite, nausea/vomiting, weakness and fatigue. This mineral is found in certain nuts like almonds, cashews, as well as in other foods such as spinach, black beans, peanuts and edamame. The RDA for men is 400-420 mg/day; women 310-320 mg/day, pregnant women 350-400 mg/day, and lactating women 310-360 mg/day.
- Zinc – Zinc is a mineral that promotes immunity, resistance to infection and proper growth and development of the nervous system. It is integral to a healthy pregnancy. Zinc supplementation reduces the incidence of premature birth, decreases childhood diarrhea and respiratory infections, lowers mortality and increases growth and weight gain among infants and young children, according to the CDC. Zinc deficiency can also cause hair loss, diarrhea, eye and skin sores and loss of appetite. Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food, but red meat and poultry provide the majority of zinc in the American diet. Other food sources include beans, nuts, certain types of seafood such as crab and lobster, whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals and dairy products. The RDA for adult males is 11 mg/day, adult women is 8 mg/day, pregnant women is 11 mg/day and lactating women is 12 mg/day.
So how can you make sure you’re getting enough of the right nutrients? Dr. Bainbridge says it’s simpler than you might think.
“If you know you have a deficiency, eat foods containing high levels of that nutrient,” said Dr. Bainbridge. Discuss whether there would be any benefit to taking vitamins or supplements with your doctor or a dietitian. Because some supplements interact with medications, ask your doctor if any interactions could occur.
“You can have blood work done to identify any key nutrient deficiencies,” said Dr. Bainbridge. “Ask your doctor at your next yearly checkup about having lab work done to identify any key areas you suspect a deficiency in.”
*Clinical dietician Robin Redd contributed to this blog.