5 Nutrient Deficiencies That Are Surprisingly Common
A healthy mind and body starts with the right nutrition. Our bodies are complex and require a wide variety of nutrients in order to function well. But even though we may have good intentions to eat healthy, getting all of these nutrients in our everyday diet can be a challenge. In fact, research shows that vitamin and mineral insufficiencies are surprisingly common in the U.S.1
Here are a few common reasons why we may be lacking important nutrients:
1. The Modern Lifestyle
Our fast-paced modern lifestyle favors convenience over well-rounded nutrition. We tend to stick with a narrow range of foods that are quick to prepare but lacking in nutrients, relying on easy processed food staples like refined grains, rather than seeking out a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
2. Soil Depletion
Research shows that 75% of Americans don’t eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.2 But even when we do, we aren’t getting the same nutritional value our parents and grandparents did. Thanks to the depletion of nutrients in the soil, the fruits and vegetables that are grown today are less nutritious than they used to be.3
3. Restricted Diets
Many people follow restricted diets for health-conscious reasons, including vegans and vegetarians, people with food intolerances, and those trying to lose weight. But it’s more challenging to get all the nutrients you need when you’re eliminating foods from your diet, and research links these diets with a higher risk of nutritional deficiencies.4,5
4. Impaired Gut Health
It takes a healthy gut to properly break down food and absorb its nutrients. Impaired gut health can interfere with proper digestion and nutrient absorption and trigger food sensitivities that may restrict the diet. Age-related changes in the gut can also reduce nutrient absorption, putting older adults at greater risk of nutrient deficiencies.
5. Stress & Alcohol
Drinking alcohol can affect your body’s nutrient stores by increasing nutrient demands, impairing nutrient absorption, and increasing nutrient excretion.6 Heightened stress levels can also deplete key nutrients that are involved in the body’s stress response,7 including magnesium, B complex vitamins, and vitamin C.
While severe nutrient deficiencies tend to have obvious, debilitating symptoms, milder deficiencies are much more common and often harder to detect. Subtle symptoms like general fatigue, brain fog, or a weaker immune response may be your only clue that you are lacking key vitamins or minerals. Yet these mild deficiencies can still have serious health consequences down the road.1
Here are some of the most common nutrients that may be lacking in your diet:
This blood-red mineral makes up a key component of your red blood cells that allows them to transport oxygen throughout the body. When you don’t have enough iron, your blood can’t deliver oxygen effectively to your brain, muscles, and other tissues, which can leave you feeling weak, lightheaded, and fatigued.8
Women who menstruate are at higher risk of iron deficiency, because iron is lost through the monthly period. If you tend to feel energy-drained during your period, it could be a sign of low iron. Low iron is also common for vegans and vegetarians, because the type of iron that’s found in plant-based foods is more difficult for our bodies to absorb than the type found in animal foods.
If you think you may have an iron deficiency, you can get checked with a simple blood test. Your doctor may recommend an iron supplement to help bring your levels back up. Meanwhile, you can keep your everyday iron levels healthy by eating iron-rich foods such as red meat, shellfish, poultry, beets, spinach, beans, and nuts, and by taking a daily multivitamin.
2. Vitamin D
Known as the “sunshine vitamin,” because we get it primarily from sunlight, vitamin D is less influenced by our diet than by our lifestyle. As modern culture increasingly moves indoors, vitamin D deficiency has become surprisingly common for adults as well as for kids. It’s especially a concern for those who live in northern areas that don’t see as much of the sun. People with darker skin also absorb less vitamin D from sunlight.
Vitamin D is best known for its role in bone health. It helps our bodies absorb calcium, which we need to build strong bones and healthy teeth. Vitamin D deficiency eventually leads to weak, brittle bones, but since these symptoms develop gradually, they can easily go unnoticed. But vitamin D has other, more immediate benefits as well, including helping to keep your immune system healthy. Low vitamin D levels are linked with an increased risk of respiratory issues and allergies in both children and adults.9,10,11
If you’re not getting sun exposure on a regular basis (and that’s most of us during the winter), you’ll need to get your vitamin D boost from food or supplements. You can find vitamin D in a handful of foods, including salmon, egg yolks, mushrooms, and fortified milks or orange juice. But a vitamin D supplement or a daily multivitamin may be a more practical choice.
This multitasking mineral is present in every cell in your body and plays hundreds of important roles that affect your physical and mental well-being. You need it for cellular energy production, muscle function, blood sugar management, and bone support, as well as for stress management, mood balance, relaxation, and sleep.
Long-term magnesium deficiency is linked with serious risks for your bone health, metabolic health, and mental health. But the short-term symptoms of low magnesium can be subtle and ambiguous, including fatigue, headaches, muscle weakness or soreness, nervous tension or restlessness, moodiness, and sleep issues.
Because magnesium does so many things, and lack of magnesium can manifest in so many common ways, it’s not always easy to diagnose a magnesium insufficiency. Even blood tests aren’t very reliable,1 since most of the magnesium in your body is stored in your bones. But studies estimate that roughly half of the U.S. population doesn’t get enough magnesium in their diet.12
Many of us just aren’t eating enough leafy greens, whole grains, beans, and nuts to meet our magnesium targets. But there is also less magnesium in the soil and drinking water than there used to be. Alcohol, caffeine, intense exercise, and stress can also deplete magnesium levels. Age-related changes in the gut also put older adults at higher risk of magnesium deficiency.13 If you think you may be lacking magnesium, a magnesium supplement or a daily multivitamin can help boost your magnesium levels.
4. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin that supports brain and nerve function and helps form red blood cells and DNA. Lack of vitamin B12 can cause problems with red blood cells, manifesting in symptoms of fatigue, weakness, and dizziness, similar to an iron deficiency. Over time, a vitamin B12 deficiency can also lead to serious cognitive and neurological issues, including problems with memory, mood, and mobility.14
Our bodies can’t produce vitamin B12, so we have to get it from food or supplements. Since vitamin B12 is naturally found almost exclusively in animal protein, vegans and vegetarians must rely on fortified foods or supplements to get their vitamin B12. Research suggests that vitamin B12 insufficiency is very common among vegans and vegetarians.15
Vitamin B12 absorption in the gut is also more complex than for other vitamins. Not only does it require sufficient stomach acid and enzymes to liberate B12 from food, you also need a protein called intrinsic factor in order to absorb B12 effectively. This absorption process tends to become less efficient with age, and can also be impacted by gut health issues, such as Crohn’s or celiac disease.
Many older adults lack the stomach acid and digestive enzymes needed to absorb enough vitamin B12 from food. Lack of intrinsic factor, usually caused by pernicious anemia, is also prevalent among older adults.16 Because of these absorption challenges, vitamin B12 deficiency is a common issue for older adults. Yet it often goes undetected, because many of the symptoms of low B12 are also common in old age.
If you are vegan, vegetarian, or over 50, supplementing with vitamin B12 is generally recommended. A multivitamin can easily help you meet your daily target. If your B12 levels are low, a Vegan B12 supplement can help bring those levels back up. A doctor can test for a vitamin B12 deficiency and recommend the right treatment for you.
Calcium is the main mineral that gives your bones structure and hardness. Your body also uses calcium for everyday functions like muscle contractions and nerve impulses. When you don’t have enough free calcium in your blood to support these functions, your body will steal the calcium it needs from your bones. Over time, this weakens your bone structure. This is why it’s so important to get enough calcium in your everyday diet.
Since bone loss is gradual, these effects may not be obvious right away. But bone loss accelerates as you get older, particularly for women after menopause. At the same time, older adults tend to have more trouble absorbing calcium from their diet. This means that older adults, and especially older women, need to be extra conscientious about getting enough calcium.
Calcium status can’t be identified through a blood test, so you have to keep an eye on your intake. Calcium is most abundant in dairy foods, but can also be found in soy, almonds, broccoli, and spinach. Vegans and those who are dairy-sensitive may have more trouble getting enough calcium from food. Research suggests that over 40% of Americans don’t get enough calcium from food alone.1 If you don’t get much calcium in your diet, you may want to take a daily multivitamin or a calcium supplement.
But it’s not just about calcium intake, it’s also about calcium absorption. Your body needs help from other nutrients, including vitamin D, magnesium, and vitamin K2, in order to absorb calcium correctly and transport it into your bones. As we’ve already seen, many people are lacking in vitamin D and magnesium, and this can negatively affect calcium absorption and bone density. So even if you are confident that you get enough calcium in your diet, you may want to supplement with vitamin D3 + K2 or magnesium to make sure you are properly absorbing calcium.
Staying in Balance
In a perfect world, we’d get all the nutrients we need from a well-rounded, healthy diet and lifestyle. But we all have days when our diet and lifestyle choices are less than perfect, and it’s easy to fall short on key nutrients. A daily multivitamin is an easy way to cover your bases and get a daily boost of essential nutrients, including the ones on this list that are most commonly lacking. If you think you may have a vitamin or mineral deficiency, be sure to check in with your doctor.
1. “Micronutrient Inadequacies in the U.S. Population: An Overview.” Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University.
2. US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans December 2015. Available at: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/.
3. “Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?” Scientific American, April 2011.
4. “Do Special Diets Put You At Risk of Nutritional Deficiencies?” St. Luke’s Health, Feb 2019
5. Calton JB. Prevalence of micronutrient deficiency in popular diet plans. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010;7:24. Published 2010 Jun 10. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-7-24
6. “Does Alcohol Cause Nutrient Deficiency?” MedicineNet, Feb 2021.
7. “What Nutrients Are Depleted By Stress?” A. Vogel, Feb 2019.
8. “Iron Deficiency Anemia.” Mayo Clinic.
9. Aranow, Cynthia. “Vitamin D and the immune system.” Journal of investigative medicine : the official publication of the American Federation for Clinical Research vol. 59,6 (2011): 881-6. doi:10.2310/JIM.0b013e31821b8755
10. “Low Vitamin D Levels Associated with Colds and Flu.” National Institutes of Health.
11. Mailhot, Geneviève, and John H White. “Vitamin D and Immunity in Infants and Children.” Nutrients vol. 12,5 1233. 27 Apr. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12051233
12. Rosanoff A, Weaver CM, Rude RK. “Suboptimal magnesium status in the United States: are the health consequences underestimated?” Nutr Rev. 2012 Mar;70(3):153-64. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00465.x. Epub 2012 Feb 15. PMID: 22364157.
13. “Magnesium.” National Institutes of Health.
14. “Vitamin B12.” The Nutrition Source, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
15. Pawlak R, Parrott SJ, Raj S, Cullum-Dugan D, Lucus D. How prevalent is vitamin B(12) deficiency among vegetarians? Nutr Rev. 2013 Feb;71(2):110-7. doi: 10.1111/nure.12001. Epub 2013 Jan 2. PMID: 23356638.
16. Andrès E, Loukili NH, Noel E, Kaltenbach G, Abdelgheni MB, Perrin AE, Noblet-Dick M, Maloisel F, Schlienger JL, Blicklé JF. Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) deficiency in elderly patients. CMAJ. 2004 Aug 3;171(3):251-9. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.1031155. PMID: 15289425; PMCID: PMC490077.