7 Common Micronutrient Deficiencies: How to Get What You Need
When we think of healthy eating and dieting for weight loss, the first thing that comes to mind is calories. Common knowledge is that calories are the number one most important unit to focus on when trying to lose weight. But research is increasingly finding that calories are secondary to the nutrients we put into our bodies.
When I say “nutrients,” I’m not only talking about macronutrients like carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Our bodies need a tremendous variety of vitamins, trace metals, minerals, and electrolytes to function at optimum health. These compounds are called micronutrients, and surveys have shown that most of us are just not getting enough of them despite eating large amounts of food. We’re obese, but starving.
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7 Most Common Micronutrient Deficiencies
Micronutrient deficiencies can cause developmental, mental, and health problems. According to a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), children with chronic micronutrient deficiencies can experience stunted growth, impaired mental development, and can be more vulnerable to diseases. Adults may become less productive, have a higher risk of chronic illnesses, and tend not to live as long as those with a more wholesome diet.
Here are 7 micronutrients most of us aren’t getting enough of in our daily diet.
Almost half of preschool children and pregnant women in their 20s lack iron. Vegetarians and vegans are much more likely to be iron-deficient because iron is most abundant in red meat and hard-to-digest foods like seeds, beans, and dark green leafy vegetables.
Symptoms of iron deficiency can include weakness, fatigue, anemia, weakened immune system, and in extreme cases, impaired mental functions.
2. Vitamin D
Not many foods contain Vitamin D, but it is a vitamin that can be produced naturally by our skin when exposed to sunlight. However, as we lead increasingly sedentary lives, we’re not going out into the sun as much as we should, so our bodies don’t have enough opportunity to produce the Vitamin D it needs. In the US, more than 70% of the elderly and 80% of people with darker skin are deficient in this vitamin.
Symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency can include bone loss, lowered immune function, muscle weakness, and a higher risk of cancer.
Almost one-third of the world’s population is deficient in iodine. Iodine is found mostly in the sea and the earth, so if produce is grown in soil that is lacking in iodine, then the vegetable won’t have enough of it as well. Less nutritious soil is a major problem since mass commercial farming has dramatically decreased the nutrients in soil and studies are finding that most of our produce is much less nutritious compared to 50 years ago.
Symptoms of iodine deficiency can include hypothyroidism, hormone imbalance, and poor brain and metabolic functions.
Considering how many dairy products we consume in North America, it’s surprising that many of us are still lacking calcium. Only 22% of teenage boys and middle-aged men, 15% of teenage girls, and 10% of middle-aged women are getting the daily recommended amount of calcium.
Symptoms of calcium deficiency can include weak and brittle bones (osteoporosis), and soft bones that bend under the weight of your body (rickets).
Magnesium is essential to keep a normal heart rhythm, maintain a normal blood pressure, and keep our bones strong. But, almost half of the US population isn't getting enough magnesium.
Symptoms of magnesium deficiency can include fatigue, migraines, heart arrhythmia, muscle cramps. Magnesium deficiency is also linked to diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart problems.
Also called folic acid, folate is especially important for women of childbearing age. When a pregnant woman is deficient in folate, the unborn child can develop neural tube defects, which is why prenatal supplements contain such a high dose of the compound.
Symptoms of folate deficiency can include mouth sores, fatigue, and changes in hair color, skin, and nails.
7. Vitamin B12
Vegans are more likely to be Vitamin B12 deficient because you can’t get it from plants. People who have had weight loss surgery are also more likely to be deficient in this vitamin because the procedure reduces the body’s ability to absorb it.
Symptoms of B12 deficiency can include numbness in hands, legs, or feet, balance problems, anemia, weakness, swollen tongue, poor memory, and in extreme cases, paranoia and hallucinations.
How to Get Micronutrients From Your Diet
The more varied your diet, the more likely you are to get all the micronutrients your body needs. Eat all the colors of the rainbow, and make sure you have at least four different colors on your plate every meal. Vegans and vegetarians can expect to have a harder time getting certain nutrients that are naturally more abundant in animal products, but as long as you eat a large variety of beans, nuts, grains, fruits, and vegetables, you should have a balanced diet.
There are also certain nutrients that will work together to boost rates of absorption when eaten in combination.
Iron With Vitamin C
Studies have shown that eating Vitamin C along with iron will help your body absorb iron more efficiently. Try a fruit salad with lots of leafy greens. A berry spinach smoothie is also a delicious way to combine vitamin C and iron.
Vitamins A, D, E, K With Healthy Fats
These vitamins are fat soluble, so eating them with healthy fats will boost their absorption. Dairy, eggs, and leafy greens like spinach contain a healthy dose of vitamins A, D, E, and K, so you can cook them together with a healthy fat like coconut oil. A veggie omelet, for example, is a great breakfast option. Alternatively, a veggie quiche makes for a satisfying evening meal.
Calcium With Vitamin D or Inulin Fiber
Combining calcium with vitamin D or inulin fiber helps your body absorb calcium more readily, and both nutrients will work together with calcium to support strong bones and healthy teeth. Inulin fiber is a prebiotic that will promote gut health as well. Try a salmon (vitamin D) and leek (inulin fiber) gratin or casserole (calcium from the cheese and cream) to combine these three nutrients in one dish.
Zinc With Vitamin A
Zinc is known as a “helper molecule” that helps transport Vitamin A to the retina to produce melanin, a pigment that protects the eyes from the sun. Try a baked oyster and roasted carrot dish to combine zinc and Vitamin A for a satisfying seafood appetizer that is also good for your eye health.
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Know What You Need
If you’re having a hard time getting all the nutrients you need from whole food alone, you could consider supplements, but pills should never replace real food. It’s also a good idea to consult a nutritionist or your GP to find out exactly which micronutrients you’re missing so you know what you need to focus on.