7 Incredibly Common Nutrient Deficiencies and How to Recognize Them
Many nutrients are absolutely essential for good health.
It is possible to get most of them from a balanced, real food-based diet.
However, the typical modern diet lacks several very important nutrients.
The typical modern diet lacks several very important nutrients. Photo credit: Shutterstock
This article lists seven nutrient deficiencies that are incredibly common.
1. Iron Deficiency
Iron is an essential mineral.
It is a main component of red blood cells, where it binds with hemoglobin and transports oxygen to cells.
There are actually two types of dietary iron:
- Heme iron: This type of iron is very well absorbed. It is only found in animal foods and red meat contains particularly high amounts.
- Non-heme iron: This type of iron is more common and is found in both animal and plant foods. It is not absorbed as easily as heme iron.
This number rises to 47 percent in preschool children. Unless they're given iron-rich or iron-fortified foods, they are very likely to lack iron.
Thirty percent of menstruating women may be deficient as well, due to monthly blood loss. Up to 42 percent of young, pregnant women may also suffer from iron deficiency.
The most common consequence of iron deficiency is anemia. The quantity of red blood cells is decreased and the blood becomes less able to carry oxygen throughout the body.
The Best Dietary Sources of Heme Iron Include (7):
- Red meat: Three ounces (85 g) of ground beef provides almost 30 percent of the RDI.
- Organ meat: One slice of liver (81 g) provides more than 50 percent of the RDI.
- Shellfish, such as clams, mussels and oysters: Three ounces (85 g) of cooked oysters provide roughly 50 percent of the RDI.
- Canned sardines: One 3.75 ounce can (106 g) provides 34 percent of the RDI.
The Best Dietary Sources of Non-Heme Iron Include (7):
- Beans: Half a cup of cooked kidney beans (3 ounces or 85 g) provides 33 percent of the RDI.
- Seeds, such as pumpkin, sesame and squash seeds: One ounce (28 g) of roasted pumpkin and squash seeds provide 11 percent of the RDI.
- Broccoli, kale and spinach: One ounce (28 g) of fresh kale provides 5.5 percent of the RDI.
However, you should never supplement with iron unless you truly need it. Too much iron can be very harmful.
Bottom Line: Iron deficiency is very common, especially among young women, children and vegetarians. It may cause anemia, tiredness, weakness, 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 (8).
Thyroid hormones are involved in many processes in the body, such as growth, brain development and bone maintenance. They also regulate the metabolic rate.
There Are Several Good Dietary Sources of Iodine:
- Seaweed: Only 1 g of kelp contains 460–1000 percent of the RDI.
- Fish: 3 ounces (85 g) of baked cod provide 66 percent of the RDI.
- Dairy: One cup of plain yogurt provides about 50 percent of the RDI.
- Eggs: One large egg provides 16 percent of the RDI.
However, keep in mind that these amounts can vary greatly. Iodine is found mostly in the soil and the sea, so if the soil is iodine-poor then the food growing in it will be low in iodine as well.
Bottom Line: 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 works like a steroid hormone in the body.
It travels through the bloodstream and into cells, telling them to turn genes on or off.
Almost every cell in the body has a receptor for vitamin D.
Vitamin D is produced out of cholesterol in the skin when it is exposed to sunlight. So people who live far from the equator are highly likely to be deficient, since they have less sun exposure (13, 14).
In the U.S., about 42 percent of people may be vitamin D deficient. This number rises to 74 percent in the elderly and 82 percent in people with dark skin, since their skin produces less vitamin D in response to sunlight (15, 16).
Unfortunately, very few foods contain significant amounts of this vitamin.
The Best Dietary Sources of Vitamin D Are (23):
- Cod liver oil: A single tablespoon contains 227 percent of the RDI.
- Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines or trout: A small, 3-ounce serving of cooked salmon (85 g) contains 75 percent of the RDI.
- Egg yolks: One large egg yolk contains 7 percent of the RDI.
People who are truly deficient in vitamin D may want to take a supplement or increase their sun exposure. It is very hard to get sufficient amounts through diet alone.
Bottom Line: Vitamin D deficiency is very common. Symptoms include muscle weakness, bone loss, increased risk of fractures and soft bones in children. It is very difficult to get sufficient amounts from diet alone.
4. Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is a water-soluble vitamin.
It is essential for blood formation, as well as for brain and nerve function.
Every cell in your body needs B12 to function normally, but the body is unable to produce it. Therefore, we must get it from food or supplements.
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods (with the exception of nori seaweed and tempeh—see here). Therefore, people who do not eat animal products are at an increased risk of deficiency.
The absorption of vitamin B12 is more complex than the absorption of other vitamins, because it needs help from a protein known as intrinsic factor.
Some people are lacking in this protein and may therefore need B12 injections or higher doses of supplements.
One common symptom of vitamin B12 deficiency is megaloblastic anemia, which is a blood disorder that enlarges the red blood cells.
Dietary Sources of Vitamin B12 Include (7):
- Shellfish, especially clams and oysters: A 3-ounce (85 g) portion of cooked clams provides 1400 percent of the RDI.
- Organ meat: One 2-ounce slice (60 grams) of liver provides more than 1000 percent of the RDI.
- Meat: A small, 6-ounce beef steak (170 grams) provides 150 percent the RDI.
- Eggs: Each whole egg provides about 6 percent of the RDI.
- Milk products: One cup of whole milk provides about 18 percent of the RDI.
Large amounts of B12 are not considered harmful, because it is often poorly absorbed and excess amounts are expelled via urine.
Bottom Line: Vitamin B12 deficiency is very common, especially in vegetarians and the elderly. The most common symptoms include a blood disorder, impaired brain function and elevated homocysteine levels.
5. Calcium Deficiency
Calcium is essential for every cell. It mineralizes bone and teeth, especially during times of rapid growth. It is also very important for the maintenance of bone.
Additionally, calcium plays a role as a signaling molecule all over the body. Without it, our heart, muscles and nerves would not be able to function.
The calcium concentration in the blood is tightly regulated and any excess is stored in bones. If there is lack of calcium in the diet, calcium is released from the bones.
That is why the most common symptom of calcium deficiency is osteoporosis, characterized by softer and more fragile bones.
One survey found that in the U.S., less than 15 percent of teenage girls and less than 10 percent of women more than 50 met the recommended calcium intake (31).
In the same survey, less than 22 percent of young, teenage boys and men more than 50 met the recommended calcium intake from diet alone. Supplement use increased these numbers slightly, but the majority of people were still not getting enough calcium.
Dietary Sources of Calcium Include (7):
- Boned fish: One can of sardines contains 44 percent of the RDI.
- Dairy products: One cup of milk contains 35 percent of the RDI.
- Dark green vegetables, such as kale, spinach, bok choy and broccoli: One ounce of fresh kale provides 5.6 percent of the RDI.
The effectiveness and safety of calcium supplements have been somewhat debated in the last few years.
Although it is best to get calcium from food rather than supplements, calcium supplements seem to benefit people who are not getting enough in their diet (37).
Bottom Line: Low calcium intake is very common, especially in young females and the elderly. The main symptom of calcium deficiency is an increased risk of osteoporosis in old age.
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 our eye pigments—which are necessary for vision (38).
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 of vitamin A is found in plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables. Beta-carotene, which the body turns into vitamin A, is the most common form.
More than 75 percent of people who eat a western diet are getting more than enough vitamin A and do not need to worry about deficiency (39).
However, vitamin A deficiency is very common in many developing countries. About 44–50 percent of preschool-aged children in certain regions have vitamin A deficiency. This number is around 30 percent in Indian women (40, 41).
Vitamin A deficiency can cause both temporary and permanent eye damage and may even lead to blindness. In fact, vitamin A 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 lactating women (40).
Dietary Sources of Preformed Vitamin A Include (7):
- Organ meat: One 2-ounce slice (60 g) of beef liver provides more than 800 percent the RDI.
- Fish liver oil: One tablespoon contains roughly 500 percent the RDI.
Dietary Sources of Beta-Carotene (Pro-Vitamin A) Include (7):
- Sweet potatoes: One medium, 6-ounce boiled sweet potato (170 g) contains 150 percent of the RDI.
- Carrots: One large carrot provides 75 percent of the RDI.
- Dark green leafy vegetables: One ounce (28 g) of fresh spinach provides 18 percent of the RDI.
While it is very important to consume enough vitamin A, it is generally not recommended to consume very large amounts of preformed vitamin A, as it may cause toxicity.
This does not apply to pro-vitamin A, such as beta-carotene. High intake may cause the skin to become slightly orange, but it is not dangerous.
Bottom Line: Vitamin A deficiency is very common in many developing countries. It may cause eye damage and lead to blindness, as well as suppress immune function and increase mortality among women and children.
7. Magnesium Deficiency
Magnesium is a key mineral in the body.
It is essential for bone and teeth structure and is also involved in more than 300 enzyme reactions (42).
Almost half of the U.S. population (48 percent) consumed less than the required amount of magnesium in 2005-2006 (43).
This may be caused by disease, drug use, reduced digestive function or inadequate magnesium intake (48).
More subtle, long-term symptoms that you may not notice include insulin resistance and high blood pressure.
Dietary Sources of Magnesium Include (7):
- Whole grains: One cup of oats (6 ounces or 170 g) contains 74 percent the RDI.
- Nuts: 20 almonds provide 17 percent of the RDI.
- Dark chocolate: 1 ounce (30 g) of dark chocolate (70–85 percent) provides 15 percent of the RDI.
- Leafy, green vegetables: 1 ounce (30 g) of raw spinach provides 6 percent of the RDI.
Bottom Line: Many people are eating very little magnesium and deficiency is common in Western countries. Low magnesium intake has been associated with many health conditions and diseases.
Take Home Message
It is possible to be deficient in almost every nutrient, but these seven are by far the most common.
Children, young women, the elderly and vegetarians seem to be at the highest risk of several deficiencies.
The best way to prevent a deficiency is to eat a balanced, real food-based diet that includes nutrient-dense foods (both plants and animals).
However, supplements can be necessary when it is impossible to get enough from the diet alone.
This article was reposted from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
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The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
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1. Choosing the Right Binoculars<p>Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have <a href="https://vashonaudubon.org/all-about-vashon-birds/binoculars-check-out/" target="_blank">binocular loaning programs</a> for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.</p><p>When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some <a href="https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/optics/top-10-tips-buying-binoculars-bird-watching.php" target="_blank">major considerations</a> might include size, ease of use, <a href="https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/binoculars.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">magnification</a>, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.</p><p>For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.</p>
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area<p>When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-these-20-common-birds_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recognize common birds</a> in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will <a href="https://nestwatch.org/learn/focal-species/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vary by region</a>, as will those migrating through it.</p>
3. Get Out and Explore<p>Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).</p><p>If you are able to travel a bit further from home, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuges/" target="_blank">national wildlife refuges</a> and <a href="https://www.americasstateparks.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state/national parks</a> are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists <a href="https://www.aba.org/aba-area-birding-trails/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">birding trails by state</a>, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify <a href="https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Important Bird Areas (IBAs)</a> across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.</p>
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat<p>The National Audubon Society recommends the "<a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-find-bird" target="_blank">stop, look, listen, repeat</a>" mantra when seeking and identifying birds.</p><p>First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.</p><p>When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.</p><p>While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you'll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon's Bird Guide app or by learning from their <a href="https://www.audubon.org/section/birding-ear" target="_blank">Birding by Ear series</a>.</p><p>Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you. </p>
5. Identification<p>When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-identify-birds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major considerations when identifying birds</a> are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sibley Guide to Birds</a> and the <a href="https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peterson-field-guide-to-birds-of-north-america-second-edition/9781328771445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peterson Field Guide</a> are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/what-bird-guide-best-you" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">specialized guides</a> focus on specific species or regions as well.</p><p>Plenty of <a href="https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/05/27/boucher-bird-blog-apps-smart-birder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bird identification apps</a> have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-best-birding-apps-and-field-guides" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">field guide in your pocket</a>. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.</p>
6. Recording Your Sightings<p><span>As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their </span><a href="https://www.thespruce.com/what-birds-count-on-a-life-list-386704#:~:text=A%20life%20list%20is%20a,which%20birds%20you%20have%20seen." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">life list</a><span>.</span></p><p>While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more <a href="https://www.riteintherain.com/no-195-birders-journal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">structured birder's journal</a> with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.</p><p>Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding</a>, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ebird/id988799279" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird app</a>.</p>
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard<p>Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.</p><p>Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/?pid=1142" target="_blank">seeds that will appeal to them</a>.</p><p>Beyond filling a birdfeeder, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/eco-friendly-lawn-2651194858.html" target="_self">transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis</a> is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.</p><p>While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster unlikely interactions between different species</a>, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cleaned to prevent the spread of infection</a>.</p>
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community<p>Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdersfund/" target="_blank">Black & Latinx Birders Fund</a>, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdability/" target="_blank">Birdability</a>, and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/feministbirdclub/" target="_blank">Feminist Bird Club</a> highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like <a href="https://www.instagram.com/hood__naturalist/" target="_blank">Corina Newsome</a> and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/tykeejames/" target="_blank">Tykee James</a>. The work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a>, <a href="https://camilledungy.com/publications/" target="_blank">Camille Dungy</a> (read her poem <a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58363/frequently-asked-questions-10" target="_blank">Frequently Asked Questions: 10</a>), and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start.</p><p>Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a> and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.</p>
9. Get Involved<p>To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a <a href="https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/" target="_blank">directory of birding festivals</a> across the country.</p><p>Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.</p><p>Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A <a href="https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees" target="_blank">2019 report released by the National Audubon Society</a> found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Protection Act</a> – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.</p><p><em>Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. </em><em>Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.</em></p>
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