When you think of the word malnutrition, it might conjure up thoughts of poverty or famine. But, malnutrition doesn’t just happen to people with limited access to food. Even those who eat enough calories can have a nutrient deficiency and be considered malnourished. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines malnutrition as “any nutritional imbalance and that can occur when people are either under or overweight if their diet is not properly balanced” (1). This means that in a culture that consumes a lot of calories, but few nutrients, many of us are actually at risk for malnutrition. So, let’s take a look at common nutritional deficiencies and foods to include to avoid malnutrition.
The Most Common Nutrient Deficiencies
Nutrient deficiencies happen when you don’t get enough of a particular vitamin or mineral from your diet to maintain optimal health. They can also happen when your body cannot absorb nutrients from food correctly. Or, your body’s demands are too high for what you consume. Deficiencies can lead to a variety of health problems including: digestion, growth, skin, and even mental health.
Here are a few of the most common nutritional deficiencies:
The most common nutrient deficiency in the world is iron. Iron makes red blood cells and carries oxygen to organs and tissues. An iron deficiency is called anemia. It leads to weakness, fatigue, learning problems, and shortness of breath. The amount of iron you need depends on your age and gender. In general, women need significantly more iron than men (2).
Foods high in iron include:
- Red meat
- Fortified cereals
- Beans and lentils
- Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach
For optimal absorption, you want to get your iron from a combination of both animal and plant sources.
Folate, also known as vitamin B9, helps make DNA and is important for brain and nervous system development. A folate deficiency can lead to birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. This is why most doctors recommend a prenatal vitamin that contains folate for most pregnant women. It can also cause anemia or problems with red blood cells, similar to iron deficiency (3).
Foods high in folate include:
- Beans and lentils
- Citrus fruit
- Green leafy vegetables, such as mustard greens and spinach
- Fortified grains and cereals
Most people get enough folate in their diets, but pregnant women and people with a genetic inability to activate folate may have different needs than what they are able to get from food naturally.
The bones and teeth contain most of the calcium in the body, keeping them strong. But, calcium also helps the function of the nerves and muscle. A calcium deficiency takes a long time to develop because the body will borrow calcium from the bones if there isn’t enough in the diet. Over time, the bones become weak, leading to a condition called osteoporosis. This increases the risks of fractures and spinal compression (4).
Food sources of calcium include:
- Dairy products
- Milk-alternatives fortified with calcium, such as almond milk
- Fish with bones
- Green leafy vegetables, such as kale or broccoli
Aim to include at least 2-3 servings of high calcium foods in your diet daily.
Vitamin D is different from other vitamins. Our bodies can make all the vitamin D we need from the sun. But, many people are vitamin D deficient due to lack of sun exposure, or from living in colder climates. Vitamin D is important for maintaining strong bones and teeth. It helps the body absorb calcium. It has also been connected to weight maintenance and immune function (5).
Vitamin D is only found in a few foods since most of our vitamin D comes from the sun:
- Fatty fish
- Vitamin D fortified milk
- Egg yolks
You can also get enough vitamin D by spending at least 15-30 minutes outside daily with sun exposure directly on your skin.
This vitamin is responsible for maintaining healthy red blood cells. A deficiency can cause shortness of breath, weakness in the extremities, dizziness, nerve damage, sore tongue, dementia, and depression. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods. Therefore, those following a vegan diet need to supplement or consume fortified foods (6).
This deficiency is the number one cause of preventable blindness worldwide. It’s also important for normal immune and reproductive function (7). There are two forms of vitamin A found in the diet: one comes from animal foods, the other from plant foods.
Animal foods high in vitamin A include:
Beta-carotene is the plant-form of vitamin A and a powerful antioxidant. Beta-carotene must be converted into active vitamin A.
Get it from these fruits and vegetables:
- Red, yellow, and orange bell peppers
- Sweet potatoes
Preventing Malnutrition and Nutrient Deficiencies
Keeping track of so many vitamins and minerals seems overwhelming. However, a generally healthy person should be able to meet all nutritional needs with a balanced and varied diet. Building your meals around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein decreases your chances of developing nutrient deficiencies. If you suspect you might have a vitamin deficiency, ask your doctor for a test. Many of these can be detected with a simple blood screening and corrected with diet changes or supplements, if necessary.