Most of us, especially those who exercise frequently and watch our diets meticulously tend to think of ourselves as healthy and well nourished. While macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) are easy to keep track of, micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) often slip under the radar. Micronutrient deficiencies can be harder to spot as the symptoms are often either vague, mild or completely absent, but the consequences can be serious. In this article, we look at three of the most common micronutrient deficiencies, their signs and symptoms, and how to get more of these vitamins and minerals into your diet.
Iron is critical for the maintenance of many physiological processes, but most notably, it is responsible for the transport of oxygen to tissues through the blood. If you aren’t ingesting enough iron, your red blood cells will not be able to bind as many oxygen molecules, decreasing the level of oxygen transported to your body’s tissues.
Iron deficiency, also known as anemia, is the most common nutrient-related disorder worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, over 30% of the world’s population is anemic. It’s more common in developing countries, but unlike most other nutrient deficiencies, the rate of anemia in industrialized countries is also significantly high. Women are especially prone to anemia, as they lose iron monthly through menstruation. Because there are fewer plant-based options for highly bioavailable iron, vegans/vegetarians are also at higher risk for developing the disorder.
If you’re deficient in anemia, you might experience chronic fatigue, weakness, pale skin, shortness of breath, dizziness, a weakened immune system, and delayed wound healing.
Shellfish: Clams, mussels and oysters contain 3.5 milligrams or more of iron per serving.
Red Meat: Cooked beef contains about 2.1 milligrams of iron per 100 gram serving.
Beans: Half a cup of cooked kidney beans contains 3.9 mg per one cup serving.
Other sources of iron include seeds, fish, and dark green vegetables like kale, broccoli and spinach.
Iron absorption is enhanced with vitamin C and inhibited by calcium – so if you’re trying to avoid low iron levels, you’ll want to avoid absorption inhibition by not mixing calcium and iron-rich foods together. Instead, maximize absorption by eating vitamin C-rich foods like bell peppers or orange juice with your iron rich-foods.
Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, is synthesized by the body upon exposure to sunlight. It can also be ingested through certain foods. Vitamin D is responsible for helping the body absorb calcium (which is why milk is often fortified with vitamin D), so deficiencies in this vitamin can contribute to bone-related issues like Rickets and osteoporosis. It has also been linked to a host of other diseases like depression, breast cancer, and multiple sclerosis.
Vitamin D deficiency is a problem that may affect anybody, but those who are at highest risk tend to be people with limited solar exposure – especially those who live in cold climates with little sunshine.
Despite the fact that vitamin D deficiencies can lead to serious problems down the line, people with the disorder are often asymptomatic, or have very nebulous symptoms like fatigue and lack of concentration. The best way to find out if you have a vitamin D deficiency is by getting blood work done.
Doctors tend to recommend 400 to 2,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day, depending on your age and location. Sunshine is the best source of vitamin D – 10 minutes of sun exposure in shorts and a tank top (at solar noon during the summertime) will result in the production of approximately 10,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D in fair-skinned individuals (for those with darker skin, it may take up to twice as long to produce the same amount).
For those who only get limited sun exposure, supplementation of vitamin D through the diet is also an option. Foods high in vitamin D include:
Cod liver oil: One tablespoon contains 1,360 IU.
Fatty fish: 100 grams of salmon contains 530 IU.
Egg yolks: One yolk contains 218 IU.
Magnesium is a mineral essential for a whole host of the body’s physiological functions. Playing a role in over 300 enzyme reactions, it is crucial for nerve transmission, energy production, the maintenance of bone and teeth, and the regulation of heart rate and blood pressure (among many other things). Long-term, magnesium deficiency can contribute to anxiety, depression, low energy, hypertension, hormone problems, heart problems, and many other issues.
It’s hard to pin down an exact figure for the prevalence of this deficiency, but trending research tends to indicate that an astounding 45-57% of the US population fails to meet the recommended daily intake of magnesium. On top of anybody who doesn’t ingest enough magnesium in their diet, those at particularly high risk for this deficiency include people with type 2 diabetes, gastrointestinal disease, and alcohol dependence.
Early signs of magnesium deficiency tend to be either indistinct or absent, but the most common symptoms include difficulty sleeping, low energy levels and muscle spasms/cramps.
Pumpkin seeds: 60 ML of pumpkin seeds contains 317 mg of magnesium.
Fortified cereals: All Bran contains 85-97 mg of magnesium per 30 g serving.
Green leafy vegetables: Half a cup of spinach contains 83 g of magnesium.
Potatoes: Cooked potatoes (with the skin) contain 44-55 mg of magnesium per potato, depending on the size.
Other high-magnesium foods include prickly pears, soybeans, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, peanuts, and salmon.
While many of us are good at keeping track of macronutrients, micronutrients often fall by the wayside, despite the harmful long-term consequences of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Careful monitoring of your micronutrient intake as well an awareness of signs and symptoms of deficiency should help clue you into any potential problems.
If you suspect that you might have a nutrient deficiency, consult your doctor for a definitive diagnosis and management plan. As always, do not make any drastic dietary changes without first consulting a health professional.