What Are Nutritional Deficiencies?
The body requires many different vitamins and
minerals that are crucial for both development and preventing disease. These
vitamins and minerals are often referred to as micronutrients. They aren’t
produced naturally in the body, so you have to get them from your diet.
A nutritional deficiency occurs when the body doesn’t absorb
the necessary amount of a nutrient. Deficiencies can lead to a variety of
health problems. These can include problems of digestion, skin problems,
stunted or defective bone growth, and even dementia.
The amount of each nutrient you should
consume depends on your age. In the United States, many foods that you buy in
the grocery store (such as cereals, bread, and milk) are fortified with
nutrients that are necessary to prevent nutritional deficiency. But sometimes your
body is unable to absorb certain nutrients even if you are consuming them.
Keep reading to learn about some common nutritional
deficiencies and how to avoid them.
Types of Nutritional Deficiency
It’s possible to be deficient in any of the
nutrients that your body needs. Some common types of nutritional deficiencies include:
The most widespread nutritional deficiency
worldwide is iron deficiency. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, a blood disorder that causes
fatigue, weakness, and a variety of other symptoms.
Iron is found in foods such as dark leafy
greens, red meat, and egg yolks. It helps your body make red blood cells. When
you’re iron deficient, your body produces fewer red blood cells. The red blood
cells it produces are smaller and paler than healthy blood cells. They’re also less
efficient at delivering oxygen to your tissues and organs.
According to the World
Health Organization (WHO), over 30 percent of the
world’s population suffers from this condition. In fact, it’s the only
nutritional deficiency that is prevalent in both developing and industrialized
countries. Iron-deficiency anemia affects so many people that it’s now widely
recognized as a public health epidemic.
Vitamin A Deficiency
Vitamin A is a group of nutrients that is
crucial for eye health and functioning and reproductive health in men and women.
It also plays a part in strengthening the immune system against infections. According
to the WHO, a lack of vitamin A is the
leading cause of preventable blindness in children. Pregnant women who are
deficient in vitamin A have higher maternal mortality rates as well.
For newborn babies, the best source of
vitamin A is breast milk. For everyone else, it’s important to eat plenty of
foods that are high in vitamin A. These include:
- green vegetables, such as kale,
broccoli, and spinach
- orange vegetables like carrots, sweet
potatoes, and pumpkin
- reddish yellow fruits, like
apricots, papaya, and peaches
Vitamin B-1 (Thiamine) Deficiency
Another common nutritional deficiency occurs
with vitamin B-1, also known as thiamine. Thiamine is an important part of your nervous system. It also
helps your body turn carbohydrates into energy as part of your metabolism.
A lack of thiamine can result in weight loss
and fatigue, as well as some cognitive symptoms such as confusion and
short-term memory loss. Thiamine deficiency can also lead to nerve and muscle
damage and can affect the heart. In the United States, thiamine deficiency is most
often seen in those who chronically abuse alcohol. Alcohol reduces the
absorption of thiamine, the body’s ability to store thiamine in the liver and
the body’s ability to convert thiamine to a usable form. Thiamine deficiency is
a common cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Many breakfast cereals and grain products in
the United States are fortified with thiamine. Pork is also a good source of
Vitamin B-3 (Niacin) Deficiency
Vitamin B-3 (niacin) is another mineral that
helps the body convert food into energy. A severe deficiency of niacin is often
referred to as pellagra.
Niacin is found in most proteins. As a result, this condition is rare in meat eating
communities. Symptoms of pellagra include diarrhea, dementia, and skin
problems. You can usually treat it with a balanced diet and vitamin B-3
Vitamin B-9 (Folate) Deficiency
Vitamin B-9, often referred to as folate
(folic acid is the synthetic form found in supplements or fortified foods),
helps the body create red blood cells and produce DNA. It also helps brain
development and nervous system functioning.
Folate is especially important for fetal
development. It plays a crucial role in the formation of a developing child’s
brain and spinal cord. Folate deficiency can lead to severe birth defects, growth
problems, or anemia.
You can find folate in foods, including:
- beans and lentils
- citrus fruits
- leafy green vegetables
- meats such as poultry and pork
- fortified grain products
Most people in the United States get enough
folate. But pregnant women and women of childbearing age sometimes don’t
consume enough folate for a healthy pregnancy. The National Institutes of Health (NIH)
recommend that women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant consume up to
400 mg of folate or folic acid each day to help prevent birth defects.
Vitamin D Deficiency
According to the Vitamin D Council, about 40
percent of the population worldwide is affected by vitamin D deficiency. Dark skinned
individuals are at a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones. It helps
the body maintain the right levels of calcium in order to regulate the
development of teeth and bones. A lack of this nutrient can lead to stunted or
defective bone growth. Osteoporosis,
caused by a lack of calcium and vitamin D, can lead to porous and fragile bones
that break very easily.
Vitamin D is found naturally in only a few
foods. Foods with vitamin D include:
- fish liver oils
- fatty fish
- egg yolks
Many dairy products in the United States are
fortified with vitamin D. Ultraviolet light from the sun is also a source of
vitamin D. According to the NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements, research
suggests that five to 30 minutes of sun exposure twice a week on the face,
arms, neck, or back can provide you with enough vitamin D. (Although
recommended for UV protection, sunscreen does hinder vitamin D absorption from
sunlight through the skin, so spend a few minutes in the sun prior to sunscreen
for optimal vitamin D absorption).
Calcium helps your body develop strong bones
and teeth. It also helps your heart, nerves, and muscles work they way they
should. A calcium deficiency often doesn’t show symptoms right away, but it can
lead to serious health problems over time. If you aren’t consuming enough
calcium, your body will use the calcium from your bones instead, leading to
Calcium deficiencies are related to low bone
mass, weakening of bones due to osteoporosis, convulsions, and abnormal heart
rhythms. They can even be life-threatening. Postmenopausal women experience
greater bone loss due to changing hormones and have more trouble absorbing
The best sources of calcium are dairy
products such as milk, yogurt, cheese, calcium-set tofu, and small fish with
bones. Vegetables like kale and broccoli also have calcium, and many cereals
and grains are calcium-fortified.
What Causes Nutritional Deficiencies?
The usual cause of nutritional deficiencies
is a poor diet that lacks essential nutrients. The body stores nutrients, so a
deficiency is usually caught after it’s been without the nutrient for some time.
A number of diseases and conditions — including
colon cancer and gastrointestinal conditions — can lead to an iron deficiency.
Pregnancy can also cause a deficiency if the body diverts iron to the fetus.
Researchers have found associations between
bariatric surgery (surgery that reduces the size of the stomach to achieve
weight loss) and nutritional deficiency. People who are candidates for
bariatric surgery may already be nutrient deficient due to poor diet. Before
and after the surgery, you should talk to your doctor and dietitian to set up a
thorough nutrition plan.
What Are the Symptoms of Nutritional Deficiencies?
The symptoms of a nutritional deficiency
depend on which nutrient the body lacks. However, there are some general
symptoms you might experience, including:
- pallor (pale skin)
- trouble breathing
- unusual food cravings
- hair loss
- periods of lightheadedness
- heart palpitations
- feeling faint or fainting
- tingling and numbness of the
- menstrual issues (such as missed
periods or very heavy cycles)
- poor concentration
You may display all of these symptoms or only
groups of them. Over time, most people adapt to the symptoms. This can cause
the condition to go undiagnosed. Schedule a checkup with your doctor if you
experience prolonged periods of fatigue, weakness, or poor
concentration. These symptoms could be a sign of the beginning of a serious
How Are Nutritional Deficiencies Diagnosed?
Your doctor will discuss your diet and eating
habits with you if they suspect you have a nutritional deficiency. They will
ask what symptoms you’re experiencing. Make sure to mention if you have
suffered from any periods of constipation or diarrhea, or if blood has been
present in your stool.
Your nutritional deficiency may also be
diagnosed during routine blood tests, including a complete blood count (CBC).
This is often how doctors identify anemia.
How Are Nutritional Deficiencies Treated?
The treatment for a nutritional deficiency
depends on the type and the severity of the deficiency. Your doctor will find
out how severe the deficiency is, as well as the likelihood of long-term
problems caused by the lack of nutrients. They may order further
testing to see if there is any other damage before deciding on a treatment
plan. Symptoms usually fade when the correct diet is followed or supplemented.
A doctor may advise you on how to change your
eating habits in the case of a minor deficiency. For example, anemia sufferers
should include more meat, eggs, poultry, vegetables, and cereals.
Your doctor may refer you to a dietitian if
your deficiency is more severe. They may recommend keeping a food diary for a few
weeks. When you meet with the dietitian, you’ll go over the diary and identify
changes you should make.
Typically, you will meet with the dietitian
regularly. Eventually, you may have a blood test to confirm that you’re no
The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans
recommends that you get most of your nutrients from food. In some cases, you
may need to take supplements or a multivitamin. It may also be necessary to
take an additional supplement to help your body absorb the supplements, such as
taking calcium and vitamin D together.
The frequency and dosage of a supplement will
depend on how severe the deficiency is. This will be decided by your doctor or
You should talk to your doctor before taking
any nutritional supplements.
In very severe cases, such as when a
nutritional deficiency doesn’t respond to oral medications, it may be necessary
for the nutrient to be given parenterally (through
the veins or muscles). This can carry the risk of additional side effects. It’s
usually done in a hospital.
Parenteral iron, for example, can cause side
- muscle pain
In rare cases, it can even cause a severe
allergic reaction. Once you have been given the treatment, your doctor will
have you do a repeat blood test to confirm that it was successful. You may need
to attend the hospital for repeat appointments until you’re no longer deficient.
Will a Nutritional Deficiency Cause Long-Term Problems?
Most problems caused by nutritional
deficiencies will stop once you’re no longer deficient. However, in some cases,
there may be lasting damage. This usually only occurs when the deficiency has
been severe and has lasted a long time.
For example, a prolonged vitamin B-1
deficiency can be associated with:
- stunted growth
- a form of dementia known as
Nutritional deficiencies in children can be
serious and lead to lasting negative health outcomes.
If you’re experiencing symptoms and are
concerned that you aren’t obtaining enough of a certain nutrient, talk to your
doctor. They can discuss your diet with you and help figure out whether you
should make some dietary changes or start taking supplements.