We rely on a number of important nutrients to stay healthy. While it’s possible to get all of the nutrients we need by eating a healthy, balanced diet, research has revealed that typical Western diets tend to be low in several essential nutrients.
With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of eight important nutrients that you could be missing from your diet.
As a large component of red blood cells, iron is an essential mineral that works to transport oxygen around the body.
There are two types of dietary iron: heme iron (absorbed very well by the body and found only in meat, fish, and poultry) and non-heme iron (absorbed less easily but is found in both animal and plant foods).
Research shows that iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world – affecting around 25% of the world’s population. According to studies, vegetarians and vegans have a higher risk of iron deficiency because their diets contain only non-heme iron, which is not as easily absorbed by the body.
Anemia is the most common consequence of iron deficiency. This is where the number of red blood cells drops, which affects the body’s ability to carry oxygen. Symptoms of anemia can include fatigue, a weakened immune system, and shortness of breath.
If you want to make sure you’re getting enough iron in your diet, some of the best food sources of heme iron include red meat, shellfish, organ meat, and canned sardines. For non-heme iron, seeds, beans, and dark leafy greens are some of the best sources. Vitamin C has been shown to enhance iron absorption, so where possible, it’s worth having vitamin C-rich food and drink, like orange juice, alongside iron-rich foods.
Experts recommend only supplementing with iron where necessary and to always consult your doctor first, as too much iron can be harmful to your health.
To find out more about the importance of iron, you might want to read our article; Iron – what it is, why it’s important, and how to make sure you’re getting enough.
Iodine is an essential mineral needed for normal thyroid function, including the production of thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones play a role in various bodily processes, including growth, bone health, and brain development. They also regulate your metabolic rate.
Like iron, research shows that iodine deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies – affecting around one third of the global population.
The most common symptom of iodine deficiency is a swollen thyroid gland, but it can also cause shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and weight gain. Severe iodine deficiency can be harmful. Research has linked it with intellectual disability and developmental issues.
Some of the best dietary sources of iodine include fish, dairy, seaweed, turkey, and eggs. To learn more about iodine and how to boost your intake, check out our article; Iodine – what it is, why it’s important, and how to make sure you’re getting enough.
3. Vitamin B12
All our cells need vitamin B12 to function properly, but since the body cannot produce it itself, we have to get it from our diet. Because only animal products contain significant amounts of vitamin B12, vegetarians and vegans have an increased risk of deficiency.
In addition, studies show that over 20% of older adults could be at risk of deficiency because absorption decreases with age. Other risk factors include diabetes, Crohn’s disease, intestinal removal surgeries, and family history.
A common symptom of vitamin B12 deficiency is megaloblastic anemia – a blood disorder that enlarges red blood cells. Other symptoms include issues with brain function and increased homocysteine levels, which is a risk factor for various diseases.
Some of the main dietary sources of vitamin B12 include shellfish, meat, organ meat, eggs, and milk products. To find out more about vitamin B12, including how to add more to your diet, have a read of our beginner’s guide to B12.
Note: Absorption of vitamin B12 is more complex than other vitamins because it requires a protein known as ‘intrinsic factor’. Because some people lack amounts of this protein, B12 injections or higher dose supplements are sometimes required.
You can find out more information about taking vitamin supplements on the NHS website. Though as always, it’s important to speak to your GP before adding any new supplements to your diet.
Calcium is used for the functioning of every cell in the body. For example, it mineralises bones and teeth and is essential for bone maintenance. Calcium also works as a signalling molecule. This means that without it, your heart, nervous system, and muscles wouldn’t be able to function.
The body regulates the amount of calcium in your blood, so when intake is lacking, bones will naturally release calcium. This is why the most common consequence of calcium deficiency is osteoporosis – a condition characterised by fragile bones that are more prone to injury.
Studies show that over 3.5 billion people worldwide are at risk of calcium deficiency as a result of eating an unbalanced diet. In the UK, research has revealed that 55% of critically ill patients have calcium deficiency. In addition, due to hormonal changes women are more at risk of becoming calcium-deficient, particularly during menopause.
Some of the best dietary sources of calcium include boned fish like sardines, dairy products like milk and yoghurt, and dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and broccoli. You can find out more about upping your calcium intake in our article; Everything you need to know about calcium.
5. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that travels through the bloodstream regulating the amount of calcium and phosphate (nutrients that are needed to maintain healthy bones, muscles, and teeth) in the body.
Vitamin D is produced by cholesterol in the skin when we’re exposed to sunlight. As a result, research shows that people who live further from the equator are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D. According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, one in six adults in the UK have low levels of vitamin D in their blood.
Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency aren’t usually obvious to begin with, but may develop over several years. For example, studies show that adults who are deficient in vitamin D may experience bone and muscle weakness, and an increased risk of fractures. Vitamin D deficiency is also believed to be linked with a weakened immune system and an increased risk of cancer.
The best dietary sources of vitamin D include fatty fish, cod liver oil, egg yolks, and some fortified foods like breakfast cereals.
However, it can be difficult to get sufficient amounts of vitamin D through diet alone. For this reason, the NHS recommends that adults consider taking a supplement during autumn and winter when there’s less sunlight.
You can read more about vitamin D supplementation in our article on vitamin D, but as always, it’s important to consult with your doctor first as too much vitamin D can cause nausea, vomiting, weakness, and the need to urinate frequently.
Magnesium is a key mineral that’s essential for bone and teeth structure. It’s also involved in over 300 enzyme reactions.
Having a magnesium deficiency is fairly rare in the UK but can be caused by various factors, including disease, drug use, digestive issues, and of course, not consuming enough magnesium.
Low levels of magnesium in the blood is linked with several health conditions, including metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Studies have found that low-levels are particularly common among hospitalised patients.
Severe magnesium deficiency can cause symptoms such as muscle cramps, abnormal heart beat, restless leg syndrome, migraines, and fatigue. Longer-term symptoms that are harder to spot include high blood pressure and insulin resistance.
To up your intake of magnesium, some of the best dietary sources include whole grains like oats, dark chocolate, nuts (particularly almonds), and dark green leafy vegetables, like raw spinach.
Alternatively, you could consider taking magnesium supplements under guidance from a doctor, which you can read more about in our article; Magnesium – what it is and why it’s important.
7. Vitamin B9
Vitamin B9, also known as folate or folic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin found in a number of different natural foods. Vitamin B9 plays a key role in the production of DNA and RNA (the body’s genetic material) and also works closely with B12 to produce red blood cells.
People with absorption disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease have a higher risk of B9 deficiency. Other risk factors include alcohol dependence, particular medicines, being over the age of 65, and eating a diet low in folate-rich foods. Vitamin B9 deficiency can cause symptoms like weakness, irritability, fatigue, and headaches.
Foods high in vitamin B9 include beans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, whole grains, and dark green leafy vegetables. For more information, including B9 recipe inspiration, have a read of our introduction to folate (vitamin B9).
For those who struggle to get enough vitamin B9 through diet alone, the NHS website provides information on supplementation. Consuming too much vitamin B9 can mask symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency and damage the nervous system, so it’s important to speak with your doctor first.
8. Vitamin A
Vitamin A is an essential fat-soluble vitamin that helps to form and maintain healthy skin, bones, teeth, and cell membranes. It also produces eye pigments, which are needed for clear vision.
Vitamin A deficiency isn’t as common in the Western world as other deficiencies. However, while most people are able to get enough vitamin A through their diet, deficiency can still occur. Signs of vitamin A deficiency can include dry skin, dry eyes, throat, and chest infections.
There are two types of dietary vitamin A: preformed vitamin A (found in animal products like fish, meat, poultry, and dairy) and pro-vitamin A (found in plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables).
Some of the best vitamin A sources include organ meat, fish liver oil, carrots, sweet potatoes, and dark leafy greens. Eat This Much has a list of high vitamin A recipes including stuffed peppers and soup that you might like to try. Or to find out more about vitamin A, including supplementation, you might like to read our complete guide to vitamin A.
Vitamins and minerals are essential for our health. And the good news is that often we can get enough of them through our diet alone.
But, for where you need a helping hand, supplements can be a useful alternative to boost your health. Just remember to always speak to your GP before taking anything new.
Which nutrients do you struggle to get enough of from your diet? Have you made any changes recently to boost your intake? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.