In developed countries today most vitamin deficiencies are rare, thanks to widespread access to fresh fruit and vegetables. However, as more and more people opt for convenience over nutrition, a lack of necessary nutrients is becoming more common. With our jam-packed lives, home-cooked meals are becoming a high-priced luxury; far too frequently we reach for processed or unhealthy food to fuel our busy days. In doing so, we may be doing ourselves the ultimate disservice: undermining our health.
Even if you consider yourself a healthy eater, foods chock full of vitamins are sometimes, ahem, less than appealing. Sardines, for example, are one of the best superfoods on earth, yet can you recall the last time (if ever) you ate one?
So how do you know if you're vitamin deficient? Here are some symptoms of the most common deficiencies:
Vitamin D - Fatigue, muscle aches, weakness
Vitamin A - Scaly skin, dry lips, swollen tongue, sleep, digestion problems, "night blindness"
Vitamin E - Decreased muscle mass, weakness, dementia, heart arrhythmia
Magnesium - Difficulty sleeping, constipation, muscle cramps/twitches
Iron - Fatigue, muscle weakness, headache, dizziness, dull hair, pale skin
Zinc - Change in smell/taste, hair thinning/loss, brittle/weak nails, eczema, dry/scaly skin, poor cognitive function
B12 - Weakness, numbness, constipation, diarrhea, vision changes, swollen tongue, paranoia and hallucinations in severe situations
Omega 3 - Inflammation, dry skin, brittle nails, mood changes
Potassium - Numbness/tingling, weakness, constipation
Calcium - Abnormal heartbeat, muscle cramps
Folate - Fatigue, changes in your skin, nail, and hair color
Before you start panicking that your winter-pale dry skin means you have an iron deficiency, take a deep breath. Most people who eat a wide range of unprocessed foods and enjoy at least a few helpings of each of the five food groups every day are probably getting all the nutrients they need. However, if you are more likely to reach for a granola bar over an apple, you may want to check with a professional.
While certain health conditions influence your vitamin levels, lifestyle factors can lead to a deficiency. For example, vegans and vegetarians are at a higher risk for iron deficiency because of the lack of heme iron (which comes from animals) in their diets. However, you can still get adequate iron from non-heme sources like legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, and select vegetables. The key to absorbing the non-heme iron is to eat these foods in conjunction with foods high in vitamin C and avoid eating them with tea or coffee. Vitamin C drastically increases the rate at which your body absorbs non-heme iron, and coffee and tea can contain tannins that prevent absorption.
People who live in cold climates with brutal, dark winters are at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency because they don't get much sun exposure. Luckily for them, most cereals, bread, and juices are fortified with vitamin D, and you can also get adequate amounts from foods like salmon and eggs.
There are a few steps to determine if you have a vitamin deficiency. You should first take a nutritional assessment, which can be done at your doctor or nutritionist's office, or you can take one online. However, if you opt for an online assessment keep in mind that you should not attempt to self-diagnose; a visit to a healthcare professional will still be necessary to accurately determine if you have a nutrition deficiency.
While some practitioners recommend a hair tissue mineral analysis as a next step, the only certifiably reliable way to determine vitamin deficiency is with a blood test. Uncomfortable, yes, but if you are exhibiting symptoms of a possible deficiency and your nutritional assessment indicates that you have greater potential for one, it's the only way to be sure.
Even if it turns out you do have a vitamin deficiency, fear not. Most are easily remedied with tweaks to your diet and lifestyle. Just look online. There are plenty of resources to learn about the best foods to prevent vitamin deficiencies.
Eating right is not just something you feel you "should" do because your doctor tells you to. Instead, focus on the health benefits, find healthy foods you like, and next time your stomach growls at 3 pm, reach for a handful of almonds instead of that granola bar.