The saying “you are what you eat/assimilate” may sound like a cliche, but it’s actually true that what you eat and drink each day gives your body the nutrients it needs to grow, repair and function correctly.
Nutrients are your body’s key building blocks, and having a varied, well-balanced diet is crucial for maintaining your good health and preventing problems from developing.
Studies show that while many people in Western countries are overfed (that is, overweight and obese), plenty of us are also undernourished. Processed foods, depleted soils, lack of sun and exposure to toxins are just some of the reasons our bodies are lacking key nutrients.
And, even if you have an extremely ‘clean’ or healthy diet, chances are there may be some essential nutrients you’re missing – especially as you age. That’s because as we get older, our bodies are less able to make and absorb essential nutrients, even though our nutritional needs are just as high – if not higher – compared to when we were younger.
Here are five common nutrient deficiencies to look out for to ensure your body keeps functioning at its best.
1. VItamin D
Vitamin D is essential for building and maintaining healthy bones. That’s because your body can only absorb calcium – another key nutrient that makes up most of your bones and teeth – when vitamin D is present.
Vitamin D is often called the ‘sunshine vitamin’ because your body makes it when your skin is exposed to sunlight without any sunblock or lotions. It’s also one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world, even us Californians in a sunshine state.
Importantly, it’s thought almost 75% of elderly Americans could be vitamin D deficient. That’s because your skin gets thinner as you age, and this affects your body’s ability to make vitamin D.
Checking your vitamin D levels is important, as insufficient levels can lead to problems like bone and muscle pain, and softening of the bones.
There’s also evidence that maintaining optimal vitamin D levels may improve your mood, and reduce your risk of developing certain types of cancer and autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis.
Getting 5-30 minutes of sunshine at least two days a week can help increase your vitamin D levels, as can eating vitamin D-rich foods like fatty fish, fortified dairy products and egg yolks.
2. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is essential for the production of red blood cells and DNA, and keeps your nervous system working properly. It’s mostly found in animal foods, which is why vegetarians and vegans in particular need to watch their vitamin B12 levels.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is also more common as we age, with one study finding up to one in five American adults aged over 50 may be borderline vitamin B12 deficient. That’s because our bodies naturally makes less stomach acid and intrinsic factor as we get older, which affects our ability to access and absorb vitamin B12 from food.
Signs of insufficient vitamin B12 include weakness and fatigue, disturbed vision and mood changes. Low vitamin B12 has also been linked to high homocysteine levels, which increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke) and dementia.
Most people can prevent vitamin B12 deficiency by eating enough meat, dairy, seafood and eggs – or, for those who don’t eat animal products, B12-fortified foods like cereal, non-dairy milk and nutritional yeast.
However, national guidelines recommend adults aged 50 and over meet most of their vitamin B12 needs through supplements and fortified foods, as these are easier to absorb than natural sources.
3. Omega-3 fats
Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory in nature and can help raise HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol that helps decrease the bad cholesterol in our blood vessels).
Unfortunately, most Americans eat too many inflammatory omega-6 fats (from things like processed vegetable oils) and too few anti-inflammatory omega-3s. In fact, studies have shown as many as 90% of Americans have low concentrations of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA.
This can contribute to chronic inflammation and increase your risk of many diseases that happen later in life, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis, just to name a few.
The good news is research suggests that a diet high in omega-3s may help prevent many age-related diseases from developing, with omega-3 rich seafood found to be particularly beneficial. Along with salmon, sardines and trout, other good sources of omega-3 fats include walnuts, flax seeds and fortified foods.
Low iron is a global problem and the leading cause of anemia in the United States and throughout the world.
When you’re anemic, your body doesn’t make enough red blood cells. This can lower the amount of oxygen in your blood and make you feel fatigued. This lack of oxygen also makes your heart work harder. If left untreated, this can lead to an enlarged heart or heart failure.
If you suspect you may be low in iron, it’s worthwhile checking your ferritin & TIBC levels. Ferritin is a blood cell protein that stores iron, and a serum ferritin test is a good indicator of your body’s iron reserves, like your savings account.
Low ferritin levels usually mean you have an iron deficiency, while high levels can indicate you have a condition that causes your body to store too much iron. If you discover you’re low in iron, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to go out and order a steak.
While red meat is certainly a good source of iron, there are many other iron-rich foods you can include in your diet, like dark green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, cashews and pumpkin seeds.
While it’s perhaps not as well known as the other nutrients, more and more research is uncovering the health benefits of magnesium – and the dangers of not having enough.
Every cell and organ in our bodies needs magnesium to function properly, and it’s particularly important for our mood, metabolism and sleep.
But modern lifestyle habits like too much coffee, alcohol, exercise and antibiotics can drain us of this essential mineral, so it’s no wonder almost half of all Americans aren’t meeting their daily magnesium needs.
What’s more, it’s estimated that up to 80% of those aged over 70 have inadequate magnesium levels. That’s because as we age, we absorb less magnesium from what we eat, and our kidneys may also excrete more of it.
Low magnesium is linked to increased inflammatory markers like CRP, as well as poor sleep, muscle spasms and even depression. Thankfully, magnesium is found in many readily available foods, including spinach, pumpkin seeds, black beans and dark chocolate