Top 10 nutrient deficiencies Americans don’t know they have

As nutritionist Kelly Dorfman points out, there’s a myth in the United States that, because we are among the fattest nations on Earth, we must be getting enough nutrients. We think malnutrition is something that affects only people in the Third World, where there are almost 800 million who don’t have enough food, and poor nutrition kills over 3 million children each year. However, malnutrition and its grim effects are much more common in the United States than most Americans realize – due to lack of nutritious food, and lack of real food altogether.(1, 2)

After decades of relatively egalitarian economic growth in the post-World War II era, malnutrition in the United States has become a serious problem since the 1970s, as the nation’s economy began assuming a Third World model of inequality. A study by the Bread for the World Institute found that hunger in the United States increased by 50% from 1985 to 1990, affecting 30 million Americans, including 12 million children lacking sufficient food to maintain growth and development.(3) In New York City, for example, 40% of children live below the poverty line, according to the world’s leading medical journal, The Lancet. And The New England Journal of Medicine revealed that African American males in Harlem have a shorter life expectancy than males in the one of the world’s most notoriously impoverished countries, Bangladesh.(4) Hunger among elderly Americans is also an epidemic, with The Wall Street Journal reporting that “several million older Americans are going hungry – and their numbers are growing steadily.” As the assistant secretary for aging at the U.S. Department of Health lamented in the mid-1990s, “The level of malnutrition and real hunger is only increasing.”(5)

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For everyone who can afford to buy a sufficient amount of food, the following list can help address the most common ailments that are caused by nutrition deficiencies. Of course, it will not be much help to the millions of Americans who simply can’t afford to eat a balanced diet, or who are stranded in “food deserts” where it’s virtually impossible to access quality groceries.

Vitamin A

If you experience night blindness, or if your eyes adapt poorly to changes in light intensity, you might be one of the many Americans who are deficient in vitamin A. The richest source of vitamin A is organ meats, which aren’t exactly the meat of choice for most Americans. But if you don’t like fried chicken livers or liver and onions, you can get sufficient vitamin A by eating sweet potatoes, carrots and spinach.(6)

Essential fats (omega-3 fatty acids)

Keratosis pilaris (also known as “chicken skin”), is a skin condition that causes acne-like bumps on the arms, thighs, cheeks and buttocks. The bumps are white or red but don’t itch or hurt. If you have this condition, it might be a sign that you’re not getting enough essential fats. Foods high in omega-3 include fish, vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and leafy vegetables.(7, 8)

Vitamin C

You might have a vitamin C deficiency if your gums are often red and bleed, or your skin bruises easily. Everybody knows that oranges are a good source of this vitamin, but red sweet peppers are even better, and best of all are a couple of exotic fruits from Latin America: guava and camu camu.(6, 9)


Does your sense of smell or taste ever seem like it’s not as strong as it should be? If so, chances are, you’re not getting enough zinc. Lamb, turkey, crimini and shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, spinach and pumpkin seeds are all great sources of this nutrient. Be aware that some grains, legumes, nuts and seeds can block the absorption of zinc. Also, too much zinc can cause deficiency in some other nutrients, so it’s a good idea to check with a qualified health practitioner before taking any zinc supplements.(10)

B vitamins

If your tongue is prone to cracking, you probably need some B vitamins. The B vitamins are B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folate or folic acid) and B12 (cyanocobalamin). The following foods are particularly rich in the vitamins indicated(11):

  • B1 – Asparagus, Brussels sprouts
    B2 – Beet greens, spinach
    B3 – Asparagus, crimini mushrooms
    B5 – Avocado, crimini and shitake mushrooms
    B6 – Sweet potatoes, potatoes
    B7 – Sweet potatoes, onions, tomatoes
    B9 – Asparagus, spinach, turnip greens
    B12 – Sardines, salmon, tuna, cod


Rapidly blinking eyes and twitching muscles are signs that you’re magnesium-deficient. According to recent statistics, up to 80 percent of Americans are lacking in this essential macromineral, which is needed for over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. Pumpkin and squash seed kernels, Brazil nuts, bran, halibut, cacao, quinoa, raspberries and black beans are all good sources of magnesium.(12, 13)

Vitamin D

If the change in seasons make you depressed (a.k.a., seasonal affective disorder), add more vitamin D to your diet. Sunlight is the greatest natural source of vitamin D, so overcoming a deficiency can be as simple as getting outdoors more often. Of course, that’s the reason vitamin D deficiency is so common during the winter, when extreme cold in large parts of the country keeps people indoors. So if you live somewhere like Fargo, North Dakota, adding oily fish to your diet gives you plenty of vitamin D, as can a variety of mushrooms – especially maitake, morel, shiitake and chanterelle.(14)


Iodine is an element that is needed for the production of thyroid hormones which help the body use energy, stay warm and keep the brain, heart, muscles and other organs working as they should. Symptoms of iodine deficiency can lead to the thyroid being underactive (hypothyroidism) or enlarged (goiter). In addition, children born to mothers who are iodine-deficient can suffer mental retardation. Among the United States population, there was an average 50% decrease in iodine levels between the early 1970s and the early 1990s – a statistic attributed to a general decline in the consumption of table salt, which has been fortified with iodine since the 1920s. Individuals in the United States can maintain adequate iodine in their diet by eating foods high in iodine, particularly dairy products, seafood, meat, eggs and certain breads. A great alternative to standard iodized table salt is Himalayan salt – a natural, unprocessed salt which is rich in iodine and contains an amazing 84 minerals.(15, 16)

Deficiencies caused by taking common medications

Most people don’t know that aspirin reduces the quantity of various nutrients in the body, including folic acid, calcium, iron, sodium, and vitamins C, K and B5. In addition, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include ibuprofen and naproxen (best-known by the brand names Advil and Aleve, respectively), deplete folic acid. Prescription medications for cholesterol (such as lisinopril) can deplete zinc.(17)


Every day, the human body loses water through perspiration, urine and bowel movements. You must consume enough water to replenish your body’s supply of it so that it can function properly. Following the traditional “8 by 8” rule of drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day is a good practice. Of course, other healthy fluids and water-containing foods apply towards the rule as well.(18)





















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