Optimal intake of nutrients is crucial to promote health and reduce risk for chronic disease. For several decades research has shown that dietary practices can prevent nutrient deficiencies, such as scurvy, and also play a role in the prevention of disease, such as cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
Many Americans are overfed but undernourished. Low intakes of a nutrient rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, cause many people to fall short of health promoting vitamins and minerals recommendations.
Here are some of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the United States:
Iron is the most common nutritional deficiency and leading cause of anemia in the United States. Iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy can increase risk for small or early babies, which are more likely to have health problems. Iron deficiency can also delay normal infant motor function or menial function. Deficiency of iron can cause fatigue and affect memory function in adults.
Young children, pregnant women, adolescent girls and women, and infants are most at risk for iron deficiency. Some foods rich in iron include clams, cereals fortified with iron, oysters, meats, soybeans, white beans, squash, lentils, and spinach. Eating a vitamin C rich food, such as citrus fruits and bell pepper, with a food source of iron will help increase the body’s absorption of iron.
The major cause of vitamin B-12 deficiency is pernicious anemia. Symptoms include weakness, shortness of breath, and palpitations. Neurological complications are present in 75-90 percent of individuals with vitamin B-12 deficiency. Vitamin B-12 deficiency is also associated with various gastrointestinal complaints, such as sore tongue, loss of appetite, and constipation.
Vegans and aging adults are most at risk for vitamin b-12 deficiency. Approximately 10-30 percent of older adults are unable to absorb vitamin B-12 from food. Vitamin B-12 is naturally found in food of animal origin, such as shellfish, organ meats, game meats, and some fish. Ready to eat cereals fortified with the vitamin are also good sources of vitamin B-12.
Inadequate vitamin D intake results in poor bone health, rickets (in children), osteomalacia (in adults), elevated serum parathyroid hormone, decreased serum phosphorus, and osteoporosis. Research has also found an association between vitamin D deficiency and increased risk of colon, breast, and prostate cancer.
Older adults, infants, and people who live in northern industrialized cities or that do not have regular exposure to sunlight are most at risk for vitamin D deficiency. The major source of vitamin D for humans is the exposure of the skin to sunlight. Vitamin D can also be found in the flesh of fatty fish, and products fortified with vitamin D, such as milk products, cereals, and some fruit juices.
A deficiency in folate can cause a specific type of anemia, diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss, headaches, heart palpitations, irritability, and behavior disorders to name a few. Pregnant women with folate deficiency also run the risk of giving birth to low birth weight babies. Infants and children with folate deficiency can have slow overall growth rates.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women require greater needs for folate and therefore often run the risk of folate deficiency. Alcoholics and individuals with chronic disease also are more likely to have folate deficiency. Leafy green vegetables, fruits, and dried beans and peas are all excellent sources of folate.
There are no immediate symptoms of calcium deficiency. However, over time inadequate calcium intake can lead to osteoporosis. The risk of bone fractures also increased in older adults with calcium deficiency.
Postmenopausal women, female athletes, individuals with lactose intolerance, and vegetarians all run higher risk of being deficient of calcium. Dairy products, sardines, tofu, salmon, and green leafy vegetables are all good sources of calcium.
Dietary surveys suggest most Americans don’t get enough magnesium, yet symptoms of magnesium deficiency are rarely seen in the US. Early signs of magnesium deficiency include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and weakness. However, there is concern that most Americans don’t have enough body stores of magnesium, which is protective against disorders such as cardiovascular disease and immune dysfunction.
Individuals with chronic malabsorptive problems such as Crohn’s disease, individuals with poorly controlled diabetes, and older adults are most at risk to be deficient of magnesium. Green vegetables, such as spinach, beans, peas, halibut, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are all good food sources of magnesium.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans state,
“Different foods contain different nutrients and other healthful substances. No single food can supply all the nutrients in the amounts you need.”
The best approach to prevent nutrient deficiencies is to regularly eat a balanced diet filled with a variety of nutritious foods.