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:
- Heme iron. This type of iron is very well absorbed. It’s only found in animal foods containing exceptionally high amounts in red meat.
- Non-heme iron. This type, found in both animal and plant foods, is more common. It is not absorbed as easily as heme iron.
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.
- Red meat. 3 ounces (85 grams) of ground beef provide almost 30% of the daily value.
- Organ meat. One slice (81 grams) of liver gives more than 50% of the daily value.
- Shellfish. Clams, mussels, and oysters are excellent sources of heme iron, with 3 ounces (85 grams) of cooked oysters packing roughly 50% of the daily value.
- Canned sardines. One 3.75-ounce (106-gram) can offer 34% of the daily value.
The best dietary sources of non-heme iron include:
- Beans. Half a cup (85 grams) of cooked kidney beans provides 33% of the daily value.
- Seeds. Pumpkin, sesame, and squash seeds are good sources of non-heme iron. One ounce (28 grams) of roasted pumpkin or squash seeds contains 11% of the daily value.
- Dark, leafy greens. Broccoli, kale, and spinach are rich in iron. One ounce (28 grams) of fresh kale provides 5.5% of the daily value.
However, you should never supplement with iron unless you truly need it. Too much iron can be very harmful.
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.
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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:
- Seaweed. Only 1 gram of kelp packs 460–1,000% of the daily value.
- Fish. Three ounces (85 grams) of baked cod provide 66% of the daily value.
- Dairy. One cup (245 grams) of plain yogurt offers about 50% of the daily value.
- Eggs. One large egg contains 16% of the daily value.
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.
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.
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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:
- Cod liver oil. A single tablespoon (15 ml) packs 227% of the daily value.
- Fatty fish. Salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout are rich in vitamin D. A small, 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of cooked salmon provides 75% of the daily value.
- Egg yolks. One large egg yolk contains 7% of the daily value.
Deficient people may want to take a supplement or increase their sun exposure. It is hard to get sufficient amounts through diet alone.
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.
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Dietary sources of vitamin B12 include:
- Shellfish. Clams and oysters are rich in vitamin B12. A 3-ounce (85-gram) portion of cooked clams provides 1,400% of the daily value.
- Organ meat. One 2-ounce (60-gram) slice of liver packs more than 1,000% of the daily value.
- Meat. A small, 6-ounce (170-gram) beef steak offers 150% of the daily value.
- Eggs. One whole egg provides about 6% of the daily value.
- Milk products. One cup (240 ml) of whole milk contains about 18% of the daily value.
Vitamin B12 isn’t harmful in large amounts because it’s often poorly absorbed and easily excreted.
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.
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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:
- Boned fish. One can (92 grams) of sardines contains 44% of the daily value.
- Dairy products. One cup (240 ml) of milk provides 35% of the daily value.
- Dark green vegetables. Kale, spinach, bok choy, and broccoli are calcium-rich. Just 1 ounce (28 grams) of fresh kale offers 5.6% of the daily value.
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.
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:
- Preformed vitamin A. This type of vitamin A is found in animal products like meat, fish, poultry, and dairy.
- Pro-vitamin A. This type is found in plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables. Beta carotene, which your body turns into vitamin A, is the most common form.
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.
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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:
- Organ meat. One 2-ounce (60-gram) slice of beef liver provides more than 800% of the daily value.
- Fish liver oil. One tablespoon (15 ml) packs roughly 500% of the daily value.
Dietary sources of beta carotene (pro-vitamin A) include:
- Sweet potatoes. One medium, 6-ounce (170-gram) boiled sweet potato contains 150% of the daily value.
- Carrots. One large carrot provides 75% of the daily value.
- Dark green, leafy vegetables. One ounce (28 grams) of fresh spinach provides 18% of the daily value.
While consuming enough of this vitamin is very important, too much preformed vitamin A may cause toxicity.
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.
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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:
- Whole grains. One cup (170 grams) of oats contains 74% of the daily value.
- Nuts. Twenty almonds pack 17% of the daily value.
- Dark chocolate. One ounce (30 grams) of dark chocolate offers 15% of the daily value.
- Dark green, leafy vegetables. One ounce (30 grams) of raw spinach provides 6% of the daily value.
Summary: Magnesium deficiency is common in Western countries, and low intake is associated with many health conditions and diseases.
It is possible to be deficient in almost every nutrient. That said, the deficiencies listed above are by far the most common.
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.