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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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By Tara Smith
Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.
Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.
Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.
From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.
Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.
Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.
Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?
Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.
When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.
The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.
The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.
But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.
Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.
This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What's stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...
Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?
It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.
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