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 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identified several nutrients that are underconsumed in the United States, including potassium, magnesium, calcium, choline, and vitamins A, C, D and E. Low intakes of iron have also been found for adolescent girls and women ages 19 to 50 years old. For some of these nutrients, deficiency is rare. However, inadequate amounts over time may cause your body to develop symptoms.
Here are just a few examples:
Low intake of iron is a concern, particularly for females of child-bearing age and children. The most common sign of an iron deficiency is fatigue. Other symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia can include dizziness, headache, chilly extremities, 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 plant foods.
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 boosted immunity. Before bone structure is affected, a deficiency may look like bone pain, muscle weakness or increased infection. People at highest risk for deficiency include breast-fed 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 rich in this 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 sailors of old had to deal with scurvy from not having access to fresh produce, 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 symptoms or concerns relating to vitamin or mineral deficiencies, consult your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist.