Common Nutrient Deficiencies

It is a known fact that the vast majority of people have a diet that does not provide all the nutrients required for a long and healthy life. Given that in most parts of the world there is no shortage of food, this does seem perverse. One reason for it is ignorance – many people just don’t realise how important a balanced diet actually is. Other reasons are stupidity, laziness and lack of self-control. Many people are simply too idle, or too silly, to cook proper food. Instead, they rely on fried chicken and fish, pizzas and other types of processed food. Indeed, many people are quite happy to eat food that they know isn’t good for them.

Even people who are aware of the importance of their diet, and take care to ensure they are eating healthily, still get caught out. One way this can happen is that they get a condition that affects their ability to absorb nutrients. Another common cause is the big processed food corporations. All too often, they sell us food that is not as rich in a particular nutrient as they would have us believe.

Luckily, most nutrient deficiencies eventually manifest themselves in one way or another – some you can see, some you can feel and some you can hear. The trick is spotting the signs, being able to interpret them and acting in accordance.

Lets take a look at the most common nutrient deficiencies:

Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps regulate the amounts of calcium and phosphate in our bodies. These nutrients are required to keep our bones, teeth and muscles healthy. Deficiencies can cause bone deformities such as rickets and a condition called osteomalacia (bone ache) in adults, and eczema.

Symptoms that indicate a lack of vitamin D are depression, excessive sweating (particularly the head), fatigue and general aches and pains. A deficiency in vitamin D is not usually obvious however, as it often develops gradually, and thus unnoticed, over a period of time.

Unlike most vitamins that can only be acquired from the foods we eat, vitamin D is made by the body. So although some foods do contain small quantities of it, diet isn’t really a factor. What is important is sunlight. Our bodies manufacture vitamin D from cholesterol in the skin when it is exposed to the sun. And, as many people don’t get enough exposure to the sun, they don’t have enough vitamin D.

This is the best way to get it – fifteen minutes of sun twice a week is enough for most people. Foods such as oily fish, red meat, liver and eggs are the best dietary sources, albeit a poor second best. It is also possible to get vitamin D in the form of pill supplements.

Warning: fluorescent sunlamps that produce high-intensity ultraviolet-B (UVB) rays are now being touted as a means of getting vitamin D. Regardless of whether they do or not, we suggest you give these a wide berth – too much UV radiation (including natural sunlight) can cause skin cancer.

Calcium is a mineral that’s essential for life. In addition to building teeth and bones, and maintaining them, it helps our blood clot, enables our nerves to send messages around the body and helps our muscles to contract and expand.

A diet deficient in calcium does not produce obvious symptoms in the short-term because the body maintains its calcium level by taking it from bone when supplies are low. Over the long-term, however, this weakens the bones and can result in osteoporosis, and rickets in children. Both increase the likelihood of bone fractures.

A good source of calcium is unboned fish – one tin of sardines provides nearly 50 percent of the recommended daily amount. Others include dairy products and dark green leafy vegetables. Some people take calcium supplements but this really isn’t necessary given that it’s present in so many foods.

About a quarter of the world’s population is thought to be deficient in iron. This essential mineral is found in every cell in the body, and is used to make oxygen-carrying proteins called haemoglobin and myoglobin.

When our iron levels are too low, we become anaemic. This is a condition whereby the lack of iron in the body causes a reduction in the number of red blood cells. As these cells store and carry oxygen in the blood, having less of them than we should means our organs and tissues don’t get as much oxygen as they need.

The most common symptoms are tiredness and lethargy, shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Headaches, tinnitus, loss of hair, impaired sense of taste and difficulty swallowing are others. Furthermore, it can make us more susceptible to illness and infection as it adversely affects our immune system.

Iron deficiency is not necessarily diet related. It can also be caused by stomach ulcers, stomach and bowel cancer, and by taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Good sources of iron include fish, eggs, leafy green vegetables, brown rice, beans, nuts, seeds, meat and dried fruit.

Magnesium is crucial to nerve transmission, muscle contraction, blood coagulation, energy production, nutrient metabolism, and bone and cell formation. Nearly 50 percent of people are lacking in this essential nutrient.

As it plays such an important role in so many of the body’s functions, a magnesium deficiency can have many symptoms. These include difficulty sleeping, facial tics, cramps, eye twitching, migraines, loss of appetite, headaches and nausea. It can also be the cause of numbness, seizures, abnormal heart rhythms and personality changes.

The best source of magnesium is almonds – a handful of these nuts provides around 15 percent of the recommended daily amount. Cashews and peanuts are not far behind. Also good are avocados, beans (black beans in particular), grains, potatoes, brown rice, yoghurt and leafy green vegetables (especially spinach)

Be aware that certain foods and drinks can deplete the level of magnesium in your body. Regular consumption of foods high in sugar, such as cakes, sweets, biscuits, pastries, etc, causes the body to excrete magnesium via the kidneys. Ditto caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee, carbonated drinks like soda, and also alcohol. Certain drugs, including diuretics, heart and asthma medication, and birth control pills do the same.

A large proportion of the world’s population is affected by iodine deficiency,  a mineral that is essential for the production of thyroid hormones. These ensure the body’s metabolic rate {the speed at which chemical reactions take place) is optimal.

The most common symptom is a swelling of the thyroid gland, which causes a lump to form in the front of the neck. Others include a dry mouth, dry skin, poor memory and concentration, an increase in heart rate and shortness of breath. Severe cases (with children in particular) can cause mental retardation and abnormal development.

One of the best ways to get iodine is to eat sea vegetables such as kelp, nori, kombu and wakame. Other good sources are eggs, fish and dairy produce. You can also get small amounts of iodine from fruit and vegetables – this is largely dependent though on factors such as soil quality, the type of fertiliser used, and the method of irrigation.

Vitamin A
Vitamin A is not just one nutrient but actually a group of fat-soluble compounds that are vital for our health in a number of ways. These include maintaining healthy vision, lowering the risk of getting acne, keeping our bones healthy, reducing the risk of a number of cancers, maintaining healthy skin, and keeping our immune system in good order.

Foods rich in vitamin A are dairy products (milk, cheese, eggs, yoghurt, etc), oily fish and liver. The latter also includes liver products such as liver pate. A good plant-based source of vitamin A is beta-carotene. This compound is found in carrots, spinach, red peppers, mangoes and papaya.

Please note that too much vitamin A is actually bad for us – no more than 0.7mg each day for adults is the recommended amount. An excess of it over a long period can cause structural damage to our bones and increase the risk of fractures.

It isn’t necessary to take vitamin A supplements – a healthy diet will provide all that’s required. Any not used by the body is stored for use when it is required.

Bottom Line
People who are lacking in nutrients will be weak, feel constantly tired for no apparent reason, and be prone to illness. They usually look pale and haggard. In the long-term, they have a much increased risk of getting serious, and potentially fatal, illnesses.

The way to prevent all this is to have a healthy and nutritious diet. If, for any reason, there are some foods and thus nutrients that you cannot eat, supplements are the answer. Just be sure to get them from the right places!