Typical diets in the modern world can be short on certain nutrients that are essential for good health. If you don’t provide what your body needs, you may be sabotaging your desire for vitality and balance.
While these nutrients are usually delivered through the consumption of real, whole foods, many people include enough processed or low-quality foods in the diet to create a deficit.
Let’s get clear on which nutrients are most likely to be missing in modern diets.
- Vitamin D
An estimated 42% of Americans may be affected by vitamin D deficiencies. (1)
People with dark skin and those who are elderly suffer from deficiencies at higher rates. Older Americans don’t usually get sufficient sunlight on their skin, and dark skin does not make as much vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. (2)
This fat-soluble vitamin functions in the body like a steroid hormone, and is manufactured from cholesterol present in skin tissue. It is carried to cells by the bloodstream, delivering messages for turning genes off and on.
All cells contain receptors for vitamin D, and the further you live from the equator, the more you may suffer from vitamin D deficiency.
It can take years for the body to develop a deficiency, and symptoms can be subtle. (3) Although many commercial foods are fortified with vitamin D, the amount may not be sufficient.
It can be challenging to adequate vitamin D in the diet. A serving of fatty fish like mackerel or salmon delivers 75% of the RDI, but the richest source is cod liver oil. One tablespoon has more than 200% of what you require. (6)
This key mineral is necessary for hundreds of enzyme reactions in the body, and plays an important role in bone and dental health. (7)
A decade ago, nearly half of Americans didn’t get enough magnesium in their diets. (8)
Magnesium deficiency is associated with a number of chronic diseases, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. (9)
Symptoms common in patients with a deficiency may include muscle cramps, migraines, fatigue and abnormal heart rhythms. (10)
Eating more dark, leafy greens can boost magnesium levels, and you can also add almonds or dark chocolate. A cup of whole oats can provide nearly three-quarters of daily needs.
Playing a vital role in bone health, calcium is also essential for proper nerve, muscle and heart function. Through the process of regulating calcium supplies, the body stores extra in the bones, then draws from them if there’s not enough.
That’s why bones become more fragile when there’s a calcium shortage.
Less than 15% of women and girls in the US get the recommended amount of calcium through dietary sources, while men and boys clock in a little higher at 22%. (11)
Calcium supplements are not always effective in meeting needs. (12) The best dietary sources of calcium include dairy products, bone-in fish like sardines, and leafy greens.
Among the most common nutrient deficiencies worldwide (13), iron is integral to the process of transporting oxygen to cells.
These are the two types of iron found in food sources:
- heme iron is present in animal foods, with red meat as the richest source
- non-heme iron is found in both plant and animal foods, but isn’t as well-absorbed
Vegans and vegetarians are at higher risk for iron deficiencies because of the absorption factor. (14)
Sardines, shellfish, red meat and organ meats are the richest sources of dietary iron.
- Vitamin A
This fat-soluble vitamin is important for cell membranes, bones, teeth and skin. Also known as retinol, vitamin A produces eye pigments necessary for vision. (15)
The most common type of vitamin A is pro-vitamin A, found in fruits and vegetables. The body converts this substance into vitamin A, and most people living in developed countries get enough through these sources.
Preformed vitamin A is present in dairy products, meats, poultry and fish.
Populations in underdeveloped countries are most likely to experience vitamin A deficiencies. Damage to vision is a common result, and a shortage of this important nutrient is the leading cause of preventable blindness worldwide. (16)
Immune function can also be compromised when the body doesn’t have enough vitamin A. (17)
A single serving of organ meat or a tablespoon of fish liver oil delivers many times the daily RDI for this important nutrient, and good vegetable sources include carrots, sweet potatoes and dark, leafy greens.
- Vitamin B12
A water-soluble nutrient, vitamin B12 is required for blood formation and plays vital roles in brain and nerve function.
It’s only available through food sources; vegetarians run a higher risk of this deficiency since plant foods containing vitamin B12 are limited to tempeh and nori seaweed.
The percentage of vegans and vegetarians suffering from vitamin B12 deficiencies may run as high as 90%. (18)
Because the body’s ability to absorb vitamin B12 from food decreases with age, about 20% of the elderly may also experience a shortage. (19)
Red blood cells become enlarged when there’s not enough B12 in the body, and symptoms of deficiency include cognitive impairment and elevated homocysteine levels. (20)
Excellent sources of dietary vitamin B12 are muscle and organ meats, as well as shellfish like oysters and clams. Foods with lower amounts include eggs and milk.
This essential mineral must be present in adequate amounts in order for the body to produce thyroid hormone, which regulates metabolism and plays a role in bone maintenance, brain development and growth. (21)
Experts believe nearly a third of the world’s population isn’t getting enough iodine. (22)
The thyroid gland becomes enlarged when iodine is in short supply, and a deficiency can also lead to weight gain, a shortness of breath, and elevated heart rates. Children can experience developmental problems when they are iron-deficient, including mental retardation. (23)
Seaweed is the richest source of iodine, with gram of kelp delivering between 400 and 1000% of the RDI. Other foods containing iodine are fish, dairy and eggs.
Typical diets today can be lacking in the essential nutrients on which your good health depends.
Supplements may be a good option if you do not (or cannot) include foods rich in the vitamins and minerals you need for a strong and healthy body, but in some cases this isn’t effective.
Summary: Base your diet on whole foods abundant in essential nutrients to make certain your body has the raw materials necessary for vital biological processes like nerve and brain function, blood and bone maintenance, and proper hormonal activity.