You might ask whether vitamin deficiency is really a problem. After all, anyone can take vitamin supplements, can’t they? And aren’t vitamins found in nearly everything we eat? If you have questions about whether this truly is a vital issue, read on.
A Vitamin Deficient Population
“… nearly the entire U.S. population consumes a diet that is not on par with recommendations. These (research) findings add another piece to the rather disturbing picture that is emerging of a nation’s diet in crisis.” – The National Cancer Institute
It is estimated that around 92 percent of the U.S. population has a vitamin deficiency. Ninety-two percent! This in a country where the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is around $60,000 (1)! Side note: In case you were wondering, vitamin deficiencies span all incomes. Vitamin deficiency is not a case study in inequality but in lack of awareness.
The United States has become a country that is both overfed and undernourished. In one of the richest countries on the planet, where food is more than plentiful, we’ve somehow managed to deprive our bodies of nutrition while becoming one of the most obese nations in the world.
How can we explain this phenomenon? Put simply, the average American diet is not very healthy. Consider also that we start eating poor-quality food at a very early age.
There’s also the problem of choosing not to eat healthier foods. Per the National Cancer Institute (NCI), 75 percent of Americans don’t eat a single piece of fruit on any given day – and 90 percent don’t get the recommended amount of vegetables (2).
Compounding the Vitamin Deficiency Epidemic
Exacerbating the vitamin deficiency problem is the general lack of healthy behaviors in most of the population. Consider:
- More than 80 million American adults are physically inactive (3).
- Children spend nearly eight hours in front of some kind of digital screen per day.
- Above 80 percent of American adults do not meet the minimum guidelines set forth for healthy aerobic and weight-based exercise.
- Less than five percent of U.S. adults get 30 minutes of physical activity per day.
Things don’t get much better when it comes to nutrition:
- The “typical American diet” exceeds the recommended daily intake (RDI) levels in four categories: calories from fat and refined sugar, refined grains, saturated fat, and sodium.
- “Empty calories” comprise 40 percent of daily calories for children aged two to 18.
- Dietary fat consumption has increased nearly 50 percent in the last four decades.
- The average U.S. adult consumes 1,100 more milligrams (mg) of sodium than is recommended; 3,400 mg and 2,300 mg, for men and women, respectively.
Other Contributing Factors
Here are some other factors that may further contribute to nutritional deficiencies in the U.S. and elsewhere:
- Elimination of physical activity classes (“gym”) in school.
- Automation of previously manual tasks.
- More complex chemical and mechanical alterations of natural foods.
- Easing of nutritional and labeling requirements.
- The proliferation of fast food establishments and convenience stores.
- Further reliance on prescription medications and other non-natural medical treatments.
- Curbed funding of efforts relating to nutritional awareness, education, outreach, and promotion.
- Increasing costs associated with fresh, organic, and nutrient-rich foods.
The Most Common Vitamin Deficiencies
Now, let’s talk about the most common vitamin deficiencies in the U.S. according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):
- 90 percent of U.S. adults are deficient in potassium.
- 70 percent of Americans are deficient in calcium.
- Half of the population is deficient in vitamin D (90 percent for people of color; 70 percent of older adults.)
- 50 percent of the population is short in vitamin A, vitamin C, and magnesium.
- 80 percent are deficient in vitamin E.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80 percent of the global population may be iron-deficient. Like magnesium, iron plays numerous roles in the body, including the production of blood cells, and transporting of oxygen to body tissues.
The Functions of Vital Vitamins
Vitamin deficiencies have very real consequences on both individual health and society at large. Let’s look at the physiological functions for which the most commonly deficient nutrients are responsible.
Potassium: Regulation of acidic and water balance in the human body (along with sodium); enables the contraction of muscles, including the heart; regulates blood pressure.
Calcium: Strengthens bones and teeth; supports the function and structure of the skeletal system; promotes healthy neurological activity. Calcium also plays roles in blood clotting, cell signaling, and muscle contraction.
Iodine: Conversion of food into energy; promotion of thyroid health; production of thyroid hormones.
Vitamin D: Promotes bone growth by absorbing calcium; strengthens bones and teeth; promotes healthy metabolic activity; regulates hormones; enhances mood.
Magnesium: Magnesium is involved in hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body. It encourages healthy bone formation, decreases the risk of diabetes, stabilizes mood and promotes a positive outlook. Magnesium also reduces symptoms such as fatigue, chronic pain, and insomnia.
Vitamin C: Supports immune system function; protects against cardiovascular disease, eye diseases, immune deficiencies, prenatal health problems, and skin damage.
Vitamin A: Promotes the health of the bones and teeth; produces pigments for the retina; strengthens the immune system and reproductive system; assists with heart, kidney, and lung health.
Vitamin E: Protects cells from free radical damage; promotes hair and skin health; protects major organs and organ systems.
Signs of Vitamin Deficiency
Vitamin deficiency affects the entire body including the brain and heart. Vitamin deficiency makes us more prone to accident, illness, disease, and injury. Additionally, we risk developing life-threatening or life-altering medical conditions when we do not get the vitamins we need.
While a person may not be able to know what vitamin in which they’re deficient, there are indeed some universal signs of possible deficiency. Here are five signs of a likely vitamin deficiency:
[Note: the recommended daily allowance (RDA) listed is for healthy adults.]
With so many people overworked these days, it seems that we have an epidemic of fatigue (to go along with the epidemic of stress.) While the causes of fatigue are innumerable, it is indeed associated with vitamin deficiency.
A lack of potassium in the body is a common culprit. Potassium may trigger fatigue for a number of reasons. First, potassium is responsible for muscle contractions; and when these contractions are weak, the body feels less “awake.” Second, evidence exists that potassium may also play a hand in allowing other nutrients to work. Should this be true, a lack of potassium could become a very big reason for fatigue indeed.
Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for potassium: 4,700-5,100 mg.
Dietary sources of potassium: Fresh fruits and vegetables, including cooked broccoli, cooked spinach, apricots, bananas, grapefruit, mushrooms, peas, and sweet potatoes.
2. Bleeding gums
Of course, a rough toothbrush and hard brushing can cause your gums to bleed (it may even damage your teeth!) But another common offender is vitamin C deficiency. Vitamin C plays a big part in keeping our immune system humming, the prevention of cell damage (‘C’ is an antioxidant), and – as it pertains to this discussion – the healing of wounds.
RDA for vitamin C: 75 mg for adult women; 90 mg for adult men. Women who are pregnant should consume about 85 mg, and women who are lactating should consume about 120 mg.
Dietary sources of vitamin C: citrus fruits (especially oranges and grapefruit), tomatoes, tomato juice, potatoes, fortified breakfast cereals.
3. Vision problems
Numerous nutrient deficiencies can progress into vision problems. For example, low vitamin-A intake can lead to night blindness. The reason: vitamin A is necessary to produce the pigment in the retina that allows one to see in dimly-lit or dark environments. A sign of developing night blindness is called “Bitot’s spots,” which are elevated, white spots that appear on the surface of the eyes.
RDA for vitamin A: 5,000 IU (applicable to adults and children ages four years and older).
Dietary sources of vitamin A: fatty fish, green leafy vegetables (esp. broccoli, carrots, and squash), fresh fruits, dairy products, fortified breakfast cereals.
4. Fragile hair or nails
Like vision problems, fragile (brittle) hair and nails can be caused by numerous vitamin deficiencies. Low intakes of calcium, B-vitamins, iron, and zinc have all been implicated as catalysts of brittle hair and nails, though it is thought that iron deficiency is the most common according to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. It is worth mentioning that some prescription drugs such as anti-seizure (“anti-convulsant”) medications may also trigger and exacerbate fragile hair or nails. Split-ends of the hair may be the clearest physical symptom of vitamin deficiency. Deficiency of the B-vitamin biotin may also lead to similar hair and nail symptoms.
RDA for iron: Male adults, 8 mg; female adults, 18 mg; pregnant women, 27 mg; lactating women, 9 mg. Adults over 51, 8 mg.
Dietary sources of iron: lean meat and seafood, beans, nuts, legumes, fortified grains, vegetables.
5. Sudden weight gain
Weight gain not attributable to lifestyle changes can be a scary thing. As we’ve talked about many times, there is much more to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight than diet and exercise. But a shortage of the nutrient iodine is an exception. Besides iron, deficiency of iodine may be the most prolific condition worldwide. Iodine is essential for healthy thyroid function, which produces hormones critical to normal metabolic functions.
RDA for iodine: 150 micrograms (ug).
Dietary sources of iodine: whitefish, cod, eggs, prunes, shrimp, tuna, iodized salt.
Nutrition is perhaps the most vital component to a healthy and fulfilling life. Getting the right foods in the right amounts can go a long way in preventing various health conditions, including obesity, which has become a health epidemic in developed nations including the United States. Just as important, proper nutrition also facilitates mental health, as well as helps ensure that our mind operates at peak performance!