The mention of nutrient deficiencies might conjure up images of developing nations, but the typical American diet also can leave big nutritional gaps. Depending on lifestyle and eating habits, some nutrients may be lacking in the general population.
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identified several nutrients that are underconsumed in the United States, including potassium, calcium, and vitamin D. Low intakes of iron have also been found for adolescent girls. And women who are pregnant may not be able to consume enough iron from foods to meet the higher amount needed during pregnancy. Getting nutrients from foods is preferred, but there may be times when a supplement is needed. Be sure to talk with a health care provider before taking any dietary supplements.
For some of these nutrients, deficiency is rare. However, inadequate amounts over time may cause your body to develop symptoms. These should also be discussed with your doctor or another health care provider.
Here are a few examples of nutrients that some Americans do not consume enough of, as well as foods and beverages which contain them:
Low intake of iron is a concern, particularly for females of child-bearing age and young children. A common sign of an iron deficiency is fatigue. Other symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia can include dizziness, headache, sensitivity to cold, paleness in the skin and under the eyelids, and weakness. Unusual cravings, such as for ice or dirt, may also occur. Children may have poor appetite and lethargy when they're anemic. Early detection helps promote healthy growth and development and lower risk for infection and lead poisoning.
Lean meat, poultry and seafood provide iron that the body can use easily. If you don't eat a lot of these foods, be sure to get a good plant-based source in each meal — lentils, beans, spinach or iron-fortified cereals all count. Bonus points for eating a vitamin C-rich food or beverage at the same time, since vitamin C increases absorption of iron from foods. Women who are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant should discuss the need for a supplement with iron with their health care provider.
Teenagers, older adults and individuals who follow eating styles that limit or avoid dairy, are at the highest risk for calcium deficiency. Over time, a calcium deficiency may result in weakened bones, fractures and even abnormal heart rhythms. Calcium-rich foods include dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese, as well as some types of soymilk, tofu, orange juice that are fortified with calcium and salmon with edible bones.
The many benefits of "the sunshine vitamin" are still being studied and may include perks such as better bone health and support for the immune system. Before bone structure is affected, a deficiency may look like bone pain, muscle weakness or increased infection. People at highest risk for deficiency include breastfed infants, older adults or people with dark skin, Crohn's or celiac disease, or obesity. Fortified dairy products, fortified orange juice, salmon and tuna are all sources of this important nutrient. Don't forget that spending some time in the sun during the warmer months (without getting burned) helps your skin naturally make vitamin D, although some climates and the recommended use of sunscreen may limit absorption.
Although no longer considered a nutrient of public health concern, vitamin C deficiency can still occur for anyone following a severely restricted diet over time. Sailors of old had to deal with scurvy from not having access to fresh produce, but vitamin C deficiency is not just a thing of the past. People who don't eat enough fruits and vegetables are at risk of inadequate intake. If you notice bleeding gums, easy bruising and wounds that seem to heal slowly, you may have an insufficient vitamin C intake. In addition to oranges, pineapple, lemons and limes, other good sources of this vitamin include bell peppers, broccoli, potatoes, guava, papaya, kiwi and strawberries.
If you have any concerns relating to vitamin or mineral deficiencies, consult your doctor or a registered dietitian nutritionist.