Nutrient Deficiencies

Nutrient deficiencies are sometimes referred to as “hidden hunger” because they can occur when nutrient requirements aren’t met by an individual’s regular diet. (16)(23) Many factors can contribute to the development of nutrient deficiencies, including impaired digestion, certain medications, (1) and poor dietary patterns. (16) Various forms of malnutrition, including nutrient deficiencies, have been associated with adverse health symptoms and chronic conditions such as cardiovascular diseases.  Read more to learn about malnutrition, malnutrition symptoms, and what you can do to prevent nutrient deficiencies.

Malnutrition Definitions

There are several different terms that relate to malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies:

Malnutrition

Malnutrition is an umbrella term that refers to any form of poor nutrition, including undernutrition (i.e., nutrient deficiencies), overweight, and obesity. (16)(22) The risk of malnutrition is greater in certain populations, including:

  • Infants
  • Young children
  • Pregnant women
  • Elderly individuals
  • Individuals who have obesity (19)
Undernutrition

Undernutrition refers to any nutrient deficiency and is associated with poor health outcomes such as child stunting, child wasting, and maternal underweight, a factor that increases the risk of complications during pregnancy. Undernutrition is typically viewed as occurring only in countries or communities that experience famine or food insecurity; however, it is also associated with malabsorptive disorders and poor-quality diets, which can occur anywhere in the world. (22)

Micronutrient Deficiency

Micronutrient deficiency is characterized by a lack of vitamins and/or minerals and is associated with various symptoms. When referring to particular micronutrients, the terms vitamin deficiency or mineral deficiency are often used. Micronutrient deficiencies are commonly seen in individuals who are underweight, have inadequate energy intake (i.e., too few calories), and have obesity. (22)

Signs of Malnutrition

Malnutrition symptoms can range depending on the nutrient that is deficient and the severity of the deficiency. Also, different signs and symptoms may occur depending on an individual’s life stage. (16)(19) Nutrient deficiencies are measured in various ways, such as using diagnostic tests (e.g., blood, serum, and urine tests) and assessing dietary intake and malnutrition symptoms. (22) Several signs of malnutrition are:

  • Impaired development in infancy and early childhood
  • Complications during pregnancy
  • Fatigue in the general population
  • Muscle pain and cramping
  • Decreased immune function
  • Cognitive decline in the elderly
 

Preventing Nutrient Deficiency

Understand Recommended Daily Intakes

In the United States and Canada, there are several terms that have been historically used to describe nutrient reference values for dietary intake, including Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) and Recommended Nutrient Intakes (RNIs). These refer to the average daily intake of a nutrient needed to meet the requirement of 97 to 98% of healthy individuals. (7)(18)

Read Food Labels

Nutrition facts labels on food identify the amounts of calories and nutrients contained in a serving of the food or beverage. The “% daily value” column on the label can help you identify foods that are a high source of nutrients. “5% daily value” or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low. In the United States, 20% or more is considered high, while on Canadian food labels, 15% daily value or more is considered high. (8)(21)

Health Canada requires the micronutrients potassium, calcium, and iron to be listed on the Nutrition facts label as the intake of these minerals has been identified as generally low in the Canadian population. (9)

Consume a Nutrient-Dense Diet

Increasing the nutrient density of your diet involves avoiding energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods, sometimes referred to as “empty calories”, such as:

  • Added sugars (e.g., baked goods, candy, cereals, desserts)
  • Foods with added fats (e.g., fried foods, takeout meals)
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g., sweetened juice, soda, energy drinks) (19)

An overall nutrient-dense dietary pattern includes whole foods, preferably foods that are local, fresh, organic, and unprocessed. (16) Examples of nutrient-dense foods to increase in your diet include:

  • Animal proteins (e.g., eggs, lean meats, fish, seafood, organ meats)
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Natural dairy products (i.e., unsweetened and minimally processed)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains (16)(19)
Supplement Your Diet

When it comes to meeting your nutrient needs, a healthy diet always comes first. In some cases, there is strong evidence supporting the use of dietary supplements in addition to a healthy diet. For instance, folate supplements are recommended for pregnant women and women who could become pregnant, as supplemental intake of this nutrient has been shown to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in the baby. (7)

In other cases, supplements may be used to address existing nutrient deficiencies or prevent nutrient deficiencies in individuals who are at risk.

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