5 Most Common Nutritional Deficiencies and How to Beat Them


4. Vitamin B12

Approximately 40 percent of the US population doesn’t get enough vitamin B 12. A deficiency of vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is a special issue because of a rapidly aging population, and older adults are more prone to not absorb this vitamin sufficiently. Other groups who are more likely to have an inadequate level of this vitamin include vegetarians and vegans and individuals who have celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease or other digestive issues, and people who have undergone gastrointestinal surgery.

Vitamin B12 is necessary for blood formation, synthesis of DNA, energy production, and development of myelin. It’s easy to miss a deficiency of vitamin B12 since it can take up to a decade or longer before the symptoms become apparent. They include mental fog, fatigue, apathy, mood swings, problems with memory, muscle weakness, and tingling in the arms and legs. 

Animal foods such as beef, eggs, salmon, scallops, shrimp, and poultry are sources of vitamin B12, which means individuals who follow a plant-based diet should look for foods fortified with B12, which includes many cereals and non-dairy beverages. When it comes to supplements, sublingual drops and sprays, as well as injections (usually reserved for more serious deficiencies) provide the best absorption, while oral tablets do not. Look for methylcobalamin supplements, as they are better absorbed than cyanocobalamin.

5. Iron

The World Health Organization has identified iron deficiency as the “most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world.” Iron-deficiency anemia is prevalent among both developing and developed countries. In the United States, the deficiency is believed to be as high as 20 percent and even 50 percent, depending on the population studied.

Read more about iron deficiency

Iron is probably best valued for is its ability to provide hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells, which is essential for life. Iron also is a key player in the function of various enzymes and proteins and facilitates the transport of oxygen and regulation of cell growth.

You may be familiar with the phrase “iron-poor blood,” which is associated with anemia, fatigue, and a compromised immune system. People who have too little iron frequently experience these symptoms, as well as paleness, shortness of breath, and tingling in the legs.

You can boost your dietary iron intake by including foods rich in heme iron or nonheme iron. Heme iron is found in red meat, fish, and poultry, while nonheme iron is found in plant foods such as beans and legumes, tofu, dark chocolate (yum!), spinach, and iron-fortified cereals and other foods. You also can cook in iron pots.

If you choose to take iron supplements, talk with a healthcare professional first. Typically it’s best to take iron supplements in two or three doses during the day and to take each dose with vitamin C to improve absorption. (This tip applies to eating foods rich in iron as well!) Taking iron supplements with milk, caffeine, calcium, or antacids reduces absorption.

When choosing an iron supplement, ferrous iron is more bioavailable than ferric iron. Iron supplements can cause constipation and other gastrointestinal side effects, which can appear when taking around 45 mg daily or more. Heme iron polypepetides, iron amino acid chelates, and polysaccharide iron complexes are less likely to cause side effects.

It’s advisable to have your iron levels checked (a simple blood test) before you begin supplementation or increasing your dietary iron. Too much iron can be problematic as well, since it can accumulate in the body and cause significant cell damage.

Remember that nutrients work synergistically—some more so than others—and that correcting one deficiency will likely impact your body’s need and/or utilization of others. So while recognizing and correcting nutritional deficiencies is critical, it’s also wise to review your entire nutritional intake—food and supplements—to ensure you’re in balance.

Ginde AA et al. Demographic differences and trends of vitamin D insufficiency in the US population, 1988-2004. Archives of Internal Medicine 2009; 169(6): 626-32
Khodabandehloo N et al. Determining functional vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly. Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal 2015 Aug 23; 17(8):e13138
Killip S et al. Iron deficiency anemia. American Family Physician 2007 Mar 1; 75(5): 671-78
Leaf A. Prevention of sudden cardiac death by n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine (Hagerstown) 2007 Sep; 8 Suppl 1:S27-29
National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. Iron
Pawlak R. Is vitamin B12 deficiency a risk factor for cardiovascular disease in vegetarians? American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2015 Jun; 48(6): e11-26
Rosanoff A et al. Suboptimal magnesium status in the United States: are the health consequences underestimated? Nutrition Reviews 2012 Mar; 70(3): 153-64
University of Maryland Medical Center. Magnesium
USDA Agricultural Research Service. Vitamin B12 deficiency
Vitamin D Council

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By Deborah Mitchell| July 13, 2017
Categories:  Eat

About the Author

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently she lives in Tucson, Arizona. Visit her at deborahmitchellbooks.com.

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