What are nutritional deficiencies? How do you know if you are nutritionally deficient?
At HealFast, we get many questions from family, friends, and patients alike on topics ranging from surgery preparation to recovery nutrition. There are many things that a patient can do to improve their recovery outcomes and decrease complications.
Today we are going to talk about Nutritional Deficiency and the impact it has on the population.
What are nutritional deficiencies?
To understand deficiency, we first need to define what the body considers a nutrient. A vitamin, mineral or other substances used but not produced by the body is often called a “micronutrient”. These substances cannot be made by the body and thus must be acquired from one’s diet. They can aid the body in enhanced healing from injury, surgery, and exercise as well as disease prevention.
A nutritional insufficiency occurs when a person is not absorbing or consuming enough micronutrients to sustain healthy levels for regular activity. Per the CDC and NHANES, nearly 80% of the population have insufficient nutrient intake.
That said, once micronutrient levels drop even further, a person enters the state of nutrient deficiency. Again, per the NHANES and CDC 10% of the population falls into this category and could be called nutrient malnourished. Sometimes a nutrient is stored up inside the body so a deficient diet might not be caught while the depletion is occurring. It’s more common than you think!
These deficiencies can lead to a variety of issues from lethargy, fatigue, compromised wound, injury, or surgery recovery, skin disorders, mental conditions (such as dementia), poor gut flora, and even stunted growth.
Of course, some micronutrient requirements change accordingly with your age, sex, and physical activity while others are generally required and recommended for daily upkeep. For this we have daily multivitamins, a variety of supplements, and even food augmented and enhanced with key nutrients to balance and support nutritional needs.
Even so, many people are still in need of a better balanced diet to prevent nutritional deficiency. It’s important to note that this is even more prevalent for people who have undergone bariatric surgery, in which case the body is physically less capable of nutrient absorption.
What are the symptoms of common nutritional deficiencies?
As mentioned above, the symptoms of nutritional deficiency coincide with what micronutrient the body is lacking. Below are some common symptoms and then later we associate them with the ingredients in corresponding sections.
Some general symptoms may include:
You will most likely not experience all of these at once or even several at a time. If the deficiency is chronic and over a longer period of time, you may even adjust to the symptoms, which makes it more difficult to identify or acknowledge. If any of the above symptoms seem to be prolonged you should probably get a check-up just in case. A doctor can help set you up with a corrective diet plan and determine if other tests and actions - from keeping a food diary to simply adding more fiber to the diet.
What are common nutritional deficiencies and how can I avoid them?
As mentioned, nutritional deficiencies come in many forms and can have various impacts on the body. Deficiency in Vitamin C, Vitamin A, and Zinc can have tremendous impacts on surgery or injury recovery rates, including post-surgery complications; while iron deficiency can lead to anemia causing fatigue and general weakness.
A person’s daily routine or immediate circumstances can quickly change the body’s nutrient needs. A surgery for example can rapidly deplete nutrients key to recovery; whereas a sickness or intense exercise can do the same for other nutrients. Ultimately, staying informed and prepared (ex: vitamin supplementation) will help make the difference in balancing nutrient requirements and levels.
As mentioned, Iron deficiency can cause anemia and result in fatigue. It can be avoided by consuming red meats, egg yolks, leafy greens (preferably dark greens) and/or daily supplements (all below have this option, so I will only say it here).
Being iron-deficient means your body may not be creating as many healthy red blood cells as normal. Not only do they tend to be smaller that regular blood cells, they are also less effective at delivering oxygen throughout the body.
Per the World Health Organization, nearly 30% of the world’s population can be considered deficient in Iron, so much so that is effects can be considered near epidemic.
Vitamin A Deficiency:
Vitamin A, a critical nutrient for healing, eye, reproductive, and immune system health. Per the W.H.O., Vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness as well as higher mortality rates in pregnant women.
Much of Vitamin A consumption from natural foods comes from pigmented produce in the form of beta-carotene and then broken down into Vitamin A as needed. It is a nutrient needed from infantency and provided by a mother’s breast milk. For adults, the usual suppliers of Vitamin A are milk, eggs, red and yellow fruits, spinach and kale, and even tomatoes.
Folate aka Vitamin B9 deficiency:
Folate is used to create red blood cells and aid the nervous system and brain development (especially in fetus and infants). In supplement form you will find it called Folic Acid. Folate deficiency can thus lead to some severe birth defects, growth issues, and even anemia.
Folate is found in legumes like beans and lentils, as well as citrus fruits, asparagus and other leafy vegetables. Shellfish, pork and chicken also contain folate.
While most Americans are able to get a daily amount of Folate, certain circumstances like childbirth might require a mother to consume extra. Per the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant “consume up to 400 milligrams of folate or folic acid each day to help prevent birth defects”
Niacin aka Vitamin B3 deficiency:
Niacin is key to creating energy from other food substances consumed in the body. It can be found in nuts and red meats naturally. Deficiency symptoms can include skin issues, diarrhea, and in more serious cases of deficiency pellagra (very rare in developed nations). It is unlikely to have serious Niacin deficiency issues while living in a developed country due to the greater abundance of meat consumption.
Thiamine aka Vitamin B1 deficiency:
A tad more common than Niacin deficiency is one in Thiamine. Besides being important for the nervous system, Thiamine aids the metabolism by converting carbs into raw energy forms, supports protein synthesis, and can even prevent excess inflammation.
If you have ever become hypoglycemic then you should know some of the symptoms also associated with a Thiamine deficiency such as fatigue, confusion, and potentially even a mild case of “forgetfulness”. In extreme cases lack of Thiamine can damage muscles and nerves.
Unlike Niacin, you will find Thiamine in some grain products, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Vitamin D and Calcium Deficiency:
We would be remiss if we failed to mention Vitamin D and Calcium deficiencies. We will group them together - as they are commonly discussed - and be a tad brief as most people understand these are critical nutrients for healthy living and growth development.
That said there are many people in the world who do not get enough Vitamin D, nearly 13% if you assume current population of 7.5B. Both Vitamin D and Calcium are important for healthy bones (including teeth) and lacking in this micronutrient can cause osteoporosis, stunted bone growth, and weak bones. Vitamin D is best procured from the Sun as its UV-B rays cause the body to create the nutrient.
While we think Vitamin D is in everything, that is mostly due to man-made additives. In fact, few foods naturally have Vitamin D within them such as fish, egg yolks, and some mushrooms.
To learn more about the importance of Vitamin D, check out our other blog posts: The Sunshine Vitamin, Vitamin D and the Eclipse of Vitamin D where we talk about how much "Sun" you need per day, what surface area it should touch, and the role of sunscreen on absorption rates.
As for Calcium, Vitamin D’s partner in crime, it helps develop strong bones and teeth and preventing disease and bone loss down the road. Calcium is especially important in older populations with the general thought to make a strong habit of obtaining enough starting at a young age.
Vitamin supplementation is often desired as milk, yogurt, and cheeses contain lactose which becomes less desirable as we age and become unable to break down as easily. Other forms of natural intake are green vegetables like broccoli, kale, and the like. A deficiency in calcium can cause, besides bone related items previously mentioned, arrhythmia (i.e. abnormal heart beats).
Final Thoughts - nutritional deficiency
There are few people who believe vitamin supplementation is not critical to obtaining a balanced and replete diet. That said, sometimes a deeper problem with nutritional deficiency might occur requiring medical intervention such as “parenteral administration” (i.e. via the veins and muscle tissue). But this is much more rare and often comes with other complications that you should consult with your primary care physician (PCP).
In general, most people following the official dietary guidelines will receive enough nutrients from food, but for many on the go, a supplement is key to ensuring the right balance. If possible try taking half in the morning and half in evening to ensure consistent flow throughout the body. Often times a multivitamin might be needed alongside additional pills to “top up” on certain nutrients.
If you suspect you are afflicted with vitamin or other micronutrient deficiencies, first try to balance your diet and exercise alongside general supplementation. If this does not remedy the situation and you are still chronically encountering some of the symptoms above, make time to call your doctor and schedule a check up.
General Disclaimer: All information here is for educational purposes only and is not meant to cure, heal, diagnose nor treat. This information must not be used as a replacement for medical advice, nor can the writer take any responsibility for anyone using the information instead of consulting a healthcare professional. All serious disease needs a physician.