How common are diet deficiencies?

If you have been tired or had a lot of colds lately, you may wonder if something is missing from your diet. You could be right. Almost one-third of Americans are deficient in at least one nutrient, according to one study. Around 8% are deficient in more than one. 

Most Americans get enough macronutrients — carbohydrates, fat, and protein. The missing elements are usually micronutrients. These are substances like vitamins and minerals that are needed in very small amounts. Micronutrients play important roles in good health.

Diet deficiencies are a global problem. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that two billion people worldwide are short on at least one micronutrient. Because the results aren't always easy to see, a lack of micronutrients is sometimes called "the hidden hunger".

In the U.S., the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies missing nutrients. In its Second Nutrition Report, the CDC states that Americans are most likely to be low in:

Vitamin B6, the little known nutrient

The nutrient most often missing from the American diet is vitamin B6. Over 10% of Americans over the age of one are low in this vitamin. 

Vitamin B6 helps the body use protein. It also helps the immune system function properly. 

Vitamin B6 is found in many foods, including:

  • Beef liver
  • Fish
  • Chickpeas
  • Potatoes
  • Non-citrus fruits

Levels of vitamin B6 are often low in:

You are unlikely to get too much B6 from foods, but you can get too much by taking supplements. If you think you might need a supplement, talk to your doctor first.

All about iron deficiency anemia

Ads for supplements once warned of the dangers of iron-poor blood. According to the CDC, two groups are at risk of an iron deficiency — children 1-5 and women from age 12 to 49. 

A lack of iron causes anemia. In this disorder, your blood doesn't have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to the body. Anemia is one of the world's biggest health problems. Among other effects, anemia can reduce your ability to work by up to 20%.

Your body easily absorbs iron from animal sources such as beef, turkey, chicken, and oysters. The iron in plants is harder for your body to use. But if you don't eat meat, you can still get enough iron, especially if you get some vitamin C at the same time. Good plant sources include:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Beans and lentils
  • Potatoes
  • Tofu
  • Cashews

Why you may not get enough vitamin D

Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin because your body makes it when sunlight strikes your skin. But you may not get enough D from the sun, especially if you have dark skin, live in a cloudy climate, wear sunscreen, or stay mostly indoors. Getting vitamin D from food isn't easy, either. Fatty fish is the only food really high in vitamin D.

Some foods are fortified with added vitamin D. These include milk, plant milk, and breakfast cereals. Still, you may need a supplement. A blood test will tell if you are low in vitamin D. But there is some disagreement among experts about exactly how much vitamin D you need. 

Vitamin D supplements come in two forms, D2 and D3. D3 is the form produced in your body and found in animal sources. D2 is produced from plants. Some studies have found that D3 works better.

Vitamin D is necessary for your body to use calcium. Without vitamin D, your bones could weaken. But too much vitamin D is toxic.‌

Do you get enough vitamin C?

Lack of ‌vitamin C is one of the oldest diet deficiencies in the world. You may have heard that sailors used to get a disease called scurvy when they were on long sea voyages without fresh fruits and vegetables. A Scottish doctor learned that stocking the ships with citrus fruits would prevent scurvy.

Today, scurvy is rare in the United States and similar countries, but having a healthy intake of vitamin C is still important. It performs many important functions in the body. Researchers think it might reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Foods besides citrus fruits that contain vitamin C include: 

  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Strawberries
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cantaloupe
  • Kiwifruit

How to get enough of missing nutrients

These four nutrients aren't the only ones you may be missing. Other common missing nutrients are:  

‌Experts advise that you should get most of your nutrients from food. The typical Western diet is high in calories but low in nutrition. If you eat such a diet, you may miss important vitamins and minerals.

A good rule is to spend 85% of your calories on nutrient-rich food. Spend only 15% of your calories on added sugars, fats, and alcohol. ‌

QUESTION

According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

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Medically Reviewed on 10/22/2021
References
Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "CDC’s Second Nutrition Report: A comprehensive biochemical assessment of the nutrition status of the U.S. population."

Nutrients: "Risk of Deficiency in Multiple Concurrent Micronutrients in Children and Adults in the United States."

Our World in Data: "Micronutrient Deficiency."

National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin B6: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals."

Eat Right: "Foods to Fight Iron Deficiency."

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health: "Vitamin D."

National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin D: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals."

Arizona State University: "Why Are English Sailors Called Limeys?"

National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin C: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals."

Dietary Guidelines for Americans: "Top 10 Things You Need to Know About the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025."

The Institute for Functional Medicine: "The Hidden Hunger: Micronutrient Deficiencies."

Our World in Data: "Micronutrient Deficiency."