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10 Most Common Nutrient Deficiencies: What Are the Consequences and Who’s at Risk?

Overhead view of a dark wooden table covered with an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables of all colors, along with some raw pasta and a bowl of rice.A nutrient deficiency means your body lacks one or more micronutrients. Some nutrient deficiencies can have severe symptoms and limit your ability to accomplish daily tasks. Surprisingly, these deficiencies are extremely common, even in developed countries. Pregnant women, children, and seniors are especially prone to nutrient deficiencies. This article dives into these nutrients and answers everything you need to know about the ten most common nutrient deficiencies.

1. Iron

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide and is one of the leading factors contributing to the global burden of disease. Iron deficiency can also lead to anemia, a blood condition that results in fatigue, weakness, dizziness, and low immune support.

The WHO estimates that iron deficiency and anemia affect 42% of children under five and 40% of pregnant women worldwide. Those most likely to experience iron deficiency include teenage girls, very young children, and those who eat plant-based diets.

The most common sources of iron in the diet include:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables;
  • Beans;
  • Red meats;
  • Dried fruits;
  • Seafood.

Many kinds of cereal and breads are also fortified with iron to encourage a healthy iron-rich diet.

2. Calcium

Your body needs calcium to promote bone growth and muscle strength. The effects of calcium deficiency might not show up immediately; in fact, calcium deficiency can strike in senior populations and cause brittle bones or low bone density.

A calcium deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies among seniors. Individuals who aren’t given proper nutrition in nursing homes can experience severe calcium deficiency and malnutrition — which may constitute a form of senior abuse or neglect in nursing homes.

It’s important to focus on getting the right amount of calcium in your diet. Common food sources include:

  • Dairy products;
  • Almond milk;
  • Fortified foods;
  • Kale and broccoli;
  • Small-boned fish.

Intake requirements vary depending on a variety of factors. Talk to your doctor and dietician if you believe your diet lacks sufficient calcium.

3. Vitamin A

Vitamin A is essential for healthy eyesight and eye movement as well as reproductive health. Vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness, poor eyesight, and high maternal mortality rates among pregnant women. The WHO states that vitamin A nutritional deficiency affects one-third of children and mothers worldwide.

Babies and young children should get sufficient vitamin A from breastfeeding. Mothers and non-breastfeeding children can get vitamin A from:

  • Milk;
  • Eggs;
  • Green vegetables;
  • Orange vegetables.

Kale, spinach, carrots, sweet potato, peaches, and tomatoes are all excellent sources of vitamin A. Those prone to vitamin A deficiencies may also take a supplement.

4. Folate

Folate, or vitamin B-9, plays an essential role in creating red blood cells and DNA, fetal development, and brain development. Folate deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in pregnant women and can lead to severe congenital disabilities and growth issues. Pregnant women and women planning pregnancies should consume 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to ensure a healthy pregnancy.

The best foods to find folate include:

  • Beans;
  • Lentils;
  • Leafy green vegetables;
  • Poultry and pork;
  • Whole grains;
  • Citrus fruits.

If you’re not sure if your diet contains enough folate, consider taking a supplement or consulting a doctor or dietician.

5. Vitamin B-12

Vitamin B-12 helps your body create healthy red blood cells. Those with a B-12 deficiency could experience the following symptoms:

  • Dizziness;
  • Fatigue and weakness;
  • Weight loss;
  • Sore or swollen tongue;
  • Damage to the nervous system;
  • Dementia.

Adults older than 60 may have trouble absorbing vitamin B-12, leading to a deficiency. Seniors in nursing homes should have special diets to include the right amount of B-12 absorption. If the nursing home isn’t providing proper medical care and nutrition for seniors, consider relocating to a different nursing home that makes your loved one’s medical care a priority.

Foods that contain B-12 include:

  • Fish;
  • Meat;
  • Poultry;
  • Eggs;
  • Milk;
  • Fortified cereal;
  • Fortified nutritional yeast.

Vegans should consider a supplement or eat fortified foods to get the right amount of B-12 in their diet.

6. Iodine

Your body needs iodine to create thyroid hormones and control the body’s metabolism. It’s an essential nutrient, and your body only needs small doses. Those with an iodine deficiency may have an enlarged thyroid (also known as a goiter). Goiters can cause difficulty swallowing and symptoms of choking. Unregulated iodine can also cause weight gain, learning difficulties in young children, and pregnancy issues.

Foods that contain iodine include:

  • Fish;
  • Seaweed;
  • Shrimp;
  • Dairy products;
  • Iodized salt.

Most foods, including bananas, have a small amount of iodine, and the majority of people get enough by eating a balanced diet. Consuming a portion of seaweed several times a month will help you avoid this nutrient deficiency.

7. Thiamine

Thiamine, or B-1, is essential to your metabolism and energy intake and helps regulate your nervous system. Short-term thiamine deficiency can cause fatigue, confusion, and memory loss. Long-term thiamine deficiency may cause nerve damage, some types of dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease.

Individuals who drink excessive amounts of alcohol have an increased risk of thiamine deficiency because alcohol inhibits the body’s ability to convert thiamine and store it. Alcohol-induced thiamine deficiency could cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), which is a type of dementia. Treatments for WKS should begin immediately to stop the disease’s progression in the brain.

Thiamine is a common nutrient found in:

  • Whole-grain foods;
  • Meat and poultry;
  • Diary;
  • Leafy green vegetables;
  • Legumes;
  • Citric fruits.

Eating a balanced diet should provide your body with enough thiamine.

8. Vitamin D

Vitamin D earned the nickname “the sun vitamin” because most people get nearly 90% of their vitamin D directly from sun exposure. Depending on where you live, only a few minutes of midday sun exposure will provide your body with enough vitamin D; however, spending time exposed to sunlight will increase your risk of skin cancer.

Vitamin D deficiency could cause osteoporosis, muscle weakness, and cancer. Seniors and those with higher melanin concentrations in their skin are considered to be more at risk of developing vitamin D deficiency. Additionally, those living further away from the equator may get less vitamin D from the sun, and can develop deficiencies.

The sun isn’t the only source of vitamin D. Vitamin D can be found in:

  • Fatty fish;
  • Beef liver;
  • Cheese;
  • Egg yolks;
  • Fortified foods.

Brief exposure to natural sunlight, or a supplement, can help you get the vitamin D that you need.

9. Niacin

Niacin, or vitamin B-3, helps the body convert food into energy, and severe deficiencies are rare. However, seniors, those who eat gluten-free diets, and those who drink excessive alcohol have a higher risk of developing this deficiency. Symptoms include diarrhea, dementia, and skin disorders. Most people can get enough niacin in their diets by eating the following foods:

  • Liver;
  • Turkey;
  • Fish;
  • Peanuts;
  • Avocado.

You can treat a niacin deficiency by adding a supplement to your diet. If you’re worried that your diet lacks niacin, talk with your doctor or dietician.

10. Magnesium

Magnesium helps regulate muscle and nerve function, blood sugar levels, and aids in protein, bone, and DNA production. Seniors, pregnant women, teenagers, and hospitalized patients are especially at risk for magnesium deficiency. Signs of deficiency include:

  • Muscle twitches and cramps;
  • Osteoporosis;
  • Muscle weakness;
  • Irregular heartbeat.

Adding magnesium-rich foods to your diet can ensure that your body stays healthy. Some of the best foods for magnesium are:

  • Almonds;
  • Pumpkin seeds;
  • Dark chocolate;
  • Peanuts;
  • Flaxseeds;
  • Popcorn.

Some health disorders, such as diabetes, could cause your body to lose magnesium. Those with health disorders that affect magnesium absorption should talk to their doctor about taking a supplement.