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Common nutrient deficiencies

7 nutrient deficiencies that are incredibly common

Nutrient deficiencies may occur with almost every nutrient, but some are more likely than others. Here are seven incredibly common nutrient deficiencies.

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Last updated on October 1, 2022, and last reviewed by an expert on August 1, 2022.

Many nutrients are essential for good health.

While it’s possible to get most of them from a balanced diet, the typical Western diet is low in several important nutrients.

This article lists seven incredibly common nutrient deficiencies.

1. Iron deficiency

Iron is an essential mineral.

It’s a large component of red blood cells, which binds with hemoglobin and transports oxygen to your cells.

The two types of dietary iron are:

Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world, affecting more than 25% of people worldwide.

This number rises to 47% in preschool children. Unless they’re given iron-rich or iron-fortified foods, they are very likely to lack iron.

Around 30% of menstruating women may also be deficient due to monthly blood loss, and up to 42% of young, pregnant women may also be deficient.

Additionally, vegetarians and vegans have an increased risk of deficiency because they consume only non-heme iron, which is not absorbed as well as heme iron.

The most common consequence of iron deficiency is anemia, in which the number of red blood cells and your blood’s ability to carry oxygen drops.

Symptoms usually include tiredness, weakness, a weakened immune system, and impaired brain function.

The best dietary sources of heme iron include.

The best dietary sources of non-heme iron include:

However, you should never supplement with iron unless you truly need it. Too much iron can be very harmful.

12 healthy foods that are high in iron
Suggested read: 12 healthy foods that are high in iron

Notably, vitamin C can enhance the absorption of iron. Eating vitamin-C-rich foods like oranges, kale, and bell peppers alongside iron-rich foods can help maximize your iron absorption.

Summary: Iron deficiency is very common, especially among young women, children, and vegetarians. It may cause anemia, fatigue, a weakened immune system, and impaired brain function.

2. Iodine deficiency

Iodine is an essential mineral for normal thyroid function and the production of thyroid hormones.

Thyroid hormones involve many bodily processes, such as growth, brain development, and bone maintenance. They also regulate your metabolic rate.

Iodine deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies, affecting nearly a third of the world’s population.

The most common symptom of iodine deficiency is an enlarged thyroid gland, also known as a goiter. It may also cause an increase in heart rate, shortness of breath, and weight gain.

Severe iodine deficiency is linked to serious harm, especially in children. It may cause mental retardation and developmental abnormalities.

Good dietary sources of iodine include:

However, these amounts can vary greatly. As iodine is found mainly in soil and ocean water, iodine-poor soil will result in low-iodine food.

Suggested read: Vitamin K foods: 53 tasty, nutritious options

Some countries mandate the enrichment of table salt with iodine, which has successfully reduced the incidence of deficiencies.

Summary: Iodine is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world. It may cause enlargement of the thyroid gland. Severe iodine deficiency can cause mental retardation and developmental abnormalities in children.

3. Vitamin D deficiency

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that functions like a steroid hormone in your body.

It travels through your bloodstream and cells, telling them to turn genes on or off. Almost every cell in your body has a receptor for vitamin D.

Vitamin D is produced from cholesterol in your skin upon exposure to sunlight. Thus, people who live far from the equator are likely to be deficient unless their dietary intake is adequate or they supplement with vitamin D.

About 42% of people in the United States may be deficient in this vitamin. This number rises to 74% in older adults and 82% in people with dark skin since their skin produces less vitamin D in response to sunlight.

Vitamin D deficiency is not usually apparent, as its symptoms are subtle and may develop over years or decades.

Adults deficient in vitamin D may experience muscle weakness, bone loss, and an increased risk of fractures. It may cause growth delays and soft bones (rickets) in children.

Also, vitamin D deficiency may play a role in reduced immune function and increased cancer risk.

While very few foods contain significant amounts of this vitamin, the best dietary sources are:

Deficient people may want to take a supplement or increase their sun exposure. It is hard to get sufficient amounts through diet alone.

Suggested read: Iron deficiency: Symptoms, signs, and causes

Summary: Vitamin D deficiency is very common. Symptoms include muscle weakness, bone loss, an increased risk of fractures, and — in children — soft bones. It is very difficult to get sufficient amounts from your diet alone.

4. Vitamin B12 deficiency

Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is a water-soluble vitamin.

It is essential for blood formation and brain and nerve function.

Every cell in your body needs B12 to function normally, but your body cannot produce it. Therefore, you must get it from food or supplements.

B12 is only found in sufficient amounts in animal foods, although certain types of seaweed may provide small quantities. Therefore, people who do not eat animal products are at an increased risk of deficiency.

Studies indicate that up to 80–90% of vegetarians and vegans may be deficient in vitamin B12.

More than 20% of older adults may also be deficient in this vitamin since absorption decreases with age.

B12 absorption is more complex than other vitamins because it’s aided by a protein known as an intrinsic factor. Some people lack this protein and may thus need B12 injections or higher doses of supplements.

One common symptom of vitamin B12 deficiency is megaloblastic anemia, a blood disorder that enlarges your red blood cells.

Other symptoms include impaired brain function and elevated homocysteine levels, a risk factor for several diseases.

Dietary sources of vitamin B12 include:

Vitamin B12 isn’t harmful in large amounts because it’s often poorly absorbed and easily excreted.

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Suggested read: 10 important types of magnesium and their benefits

Summary: Vitamin B12 deficiency is very common, especially in vegetarians, vegans, and older adults. The most common symptoms include blood disorders, impaired brain function, and elevated homocysteine levels.

5. Calcium deficiency

Calcium is essential for every cell in your body. It mineralizes bones and teeth, especially during times of rapid growth. It is also very important for bone maintenance.

Additionally, calcium serves as a signaling molecule. Without it, your heart, muscles, and nerves would be unable to function.

The calcium concentration in your blood is tightly regulated, and any excess is stored in bones. If your intake is lacking, your bones will release calcium.

That is why the most common symptom of calcium deficiency is osteoporosis, characterized by softer and more fragile bones.

One survey in the United States found that fewer than 15% of teenage girls, fewer than 10% of women over 50, and fewer than 22% of teenage boys and men over 50 met the recommended calcium intake.

Although supplementing increased these numbers slightly, most people were still not getting enough calcium.

Symptoms of more severe dietary calcium deficiency include soft bones (rickets) in children and osteoporosis, especially in older adults.

Dietary sources of calcium include:

The effectiveness and safety of calcium supplements have been somewhat debated in the last few years.

Some studies demonstrate an increased risk of heart disease in people taking calcium supplements, although other studies have found no effects.

While it’s best to get calcium from food rather than supplements, these supplements seem to benefit people who are not getting enough in their diet.

Suggested read: Why too much iron is harmful

Summary: Low calcium intake is very common, especially in women of all ages and older adults. The main symptom of calcium deficiency is an increased risk of osteoporosis later in life.

6. Vitamin A deficiency

Vitamin A is an essential fat-soluble vitamin. It helps form and maintain healthy skin, teeth, bones, and cell membranes. Furthermore, it produces eye pigments, which are necessary for vision.

There are two different types of dietary vitamin A:

More than 75% of people who eat a Western diet get more than enough vitamin A and do not need to worry about deficiency.

However, vitamin A deficiency is very common in many developing countries. About 44–50% of preschool-aged children in certain regions have vitamin A deficiency. This number is around 30% of Indian women.

Vitamin A deficiency can cause temporary and permanent eye damage and may even lead to blindness. This deficiency is the world’s leading cause of blindness.

Vitamin A deficiency can also suppress immune function and increase mortality, especially among children and pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Dietary sources of preformed vitamin A include:

Dietary sources of beta carotene (pro-vitamin A) include:

While consuming enough of this vitamin is very important, too much preformed vitamin A may cause toxicity.

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This does not apply to pro-vitamin A, such as beta carotene. High intake may cause your skin to turn slightly orange, but this effect isn’t dangerous.

Summary: Vitamin A deficiency is common in many developing countries. It may cause eye damage and blindness, suppress immune function and increase mortality among women and children.

7. Magnesium deficiency

Magnesium is a key mineral in your body.

Essential for bone and teeth structure, it’s also involved in more than 300 enzyme reactions.

Close to 70% of the US population under 71 and about 80% over 71 years old consume less than the required amount of magnesium.

Low magnesium intake and blood levels are associated with several conditions, including type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and osteoporosis.

Low levels are particularly common among hospitalized patients. Some studies find that 9–65% of them are deficient.

Deficiency may be caused by disease, drug use, reduced digestive function, or inadequate magnesium intake.

The main symptoms of severe magnesium deficiency include abnormal heart rhythm, muscle cramps, restless leg syndrome, fatigue, and migraines.

More subtle, long-term symptoms you may not notice include insulin resistance and high blood pressure.

Dietary sources of magnesium include:

Summary: Magnesium deficiency is common in Western countries, and low intake is associated with many health conditions and diseases.

Summary

It is possible to be deficient in almost every nutrient. That said, the deficiencies listed above are by far the most common.

12 foods that are high in vitamin B12
Suggested read: 12 foods that are high in vitamin B12

Children, young women, older adults, vegetarians, and vegans seem to be at the highest risk of several deficiencies.

The best way to prevent deficiency is to eat a balanced diet that includes whole, nutrient-dense foods. However, supplements may be necessary for those who can’t obtain enough from diet alone.

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