The supplement business is a multibillion dollar industry — and an increasingly controversial one at that. While we all know that it’s best to get the essential vitamins we need from food, as long as pizza and pies taste better than fruits and vegetables, the average American diet will leave many of us lacking in one vitamin or another. To find out about the signs of vitamin deficiencies and what we should focus on eating to prevent them, we spoke with Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, LDN and the Director of Nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa. Turns out, those muscle cramps you were having may not just be from a particularly strenuous workout.
How Do You Become Vitamin Deficient?
Deficiencies can occur because you’re not eating enough foods containing these vitamins or because your body has trouble absorbing/processing these vitamins. The latter can occur if you have GI tract damage (i.e., celiac patients have malabsorption due to damage to their intestines) or if you take an acid inhibitor, which affects your ability to absorb vitamins, especially B12. Living an unhealthy lifestyle is also a contributor. Deficiencies usually develop slowly over time and symptoms increase as the deficiency worsens.
Who’s at High Risk for Deficiencies?
Anyone who has an autoimmune disorder, is a smoker, has a chronic Illness, a diet low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, is malnourished, is pregnant, is above the age of 50 and/or someone who has an indoor and inactive lifestyle.
Signs and Side Effects of Common Vitamin Deficiencies, Plus What You Can Eat to Prevent Them
- Vitamin D: Symptoms of bone pain and muscle weakness can mean you have a vitamin D deficiency. However, for many people, the symptoms are subtle. Yet, even without symptoms, too little vitamin D can pose health risks. Low blood levels of the vitamin have been associated with increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment in older adults, severe asthma in children and cancer. Vitamin D is essential for hormone action, calcium absorption, osteoporosis prevention and treatment and it may help prevent colon cancer. Good food sources are seafood, nonfat milk, soy and enriched products like almond milk. We can also get Vitamin D from sunlight (10-15 minutes, hands and face, 3-4x/week).
- Calcium: Muscle cramps, poor appetite, memory loss, muscle spasms, numbness and tingling in the hands, feet and face, depression and even hallucinations are common signs of a deficiency. Calcium is essential for bone health. Aside from dairy, leafy greens, bananas, apples, grapefruit, almonds, hazelnuts and squash are all good sources.
- B Vitamins: B vitamins are essential for growth, development and a variety of other bodily functions. They play a major role in the activities of enzymes, proteins that regulate chemical reactions in the body, which are important for turning food into energy and other needed substances. B vitamins are found in plant and animal food sources. Deficiency can cause anemia, tiredness, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, depression, numbness and tingling in the arms and legs, muscle cramps, respiratory infections, hair loss, eczema, poor growth in children and birth defects.
- Iron: This mineral helps bring oxygen throughout the body, allowing cells to grow. Iron is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide. Fatigue is one of the biggest indicators of low iron levels. Other signs and symptoms of iron deficiency may include brittle nails, swelling or soreness of the tongue, cracks in the sides of the mouth, an enlarged spleen and frequent infections. People who have iron-deficiency anemia may have an unusual craving for nonfood items, such as ice, dirt, paint or starch. This craving is called pica. Some people who have iron-deficiency anemia develop restless legs syndrome (RLS). RLS is a disorder that causes a strong urge to move the legs. This urge to move often occurs with strange and unpleasant feelings in the legs. People who have RLS often have a hard time sleeping. Meat, poultry and fish/shellfish all contain healthy amounts of iron as do plants like legumes, tofu, spinach and fortified cereals, but the iron from these sources isn’t as easily absorbed.
If you eat a healthy diet, but either dislike certain food groups or are showing deficiencies regardless of your diet, then taking a supplement is imperative. Check in with your physician about which supplements and dosing are right for you. Sometimes a daily supplement is also a great backup plan for when life gets in the way.