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, there are some nutrients that could be lacking in the general population.
The many roles of vitamin B6 include helping to maintain a healthy immune system, preserve normal nerve function and prevent certain types of anemia. People with kidney disease and those who drink too much alcohol are at increased risk of deficiency. If you have an autoimmune condition — particularly one that affects the intestines, such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis — ask your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist about vitamin B6. A classic physical sign is rash and other skin problems, which usually manifest as dandruff or as scaly patches and red skin around oily parts of the body such as the face, chest and back. Depression, confusion and even seizures can be present if the deficiency is too bad, at which point you would need to seek immediate medical attention. To help prevent a B6 deficiency, eat foods that are rich in the vitamin such as fortified cereals and grains, beans, poultry, fish, dark leafy green vegetables, oranges and cantaloupe.
Iron-deficiency anemia is a major public health concern, especially in women of child-bearing age and children. The most common sign of a deficiency is fatigue. Other symptoms can include dizziness, headache, chilly extremities, paleness in the skin and under the eyelids, and weakness. An unusual craving for non-food items such as ice is a telltale sign. 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.
The best sources of iron include lean meat, poultry and seafood. 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 at the same time, since vitamin C increases absorption of iron from plant foods.
The many benefits of "the sunshine vitamin" are still being studied and 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 sailors of old had to deal with scurvy from not having access to citrus fruits, vitamin C deficiency is not 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 could 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, consult your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist.