Everything You Need to Know About Nutritional Deficiencies
Nutrition inadequacies could be slowing you down. Here's what you need to know to optimize your nutrition so you can get the most out of life.
Published March 13, 2019 - 17 Min Read
What does it mean to Live Your Fullest Everyday?
Several years ago, when I made a conscious decision to clean up my diet, I thought I was doing everything I could to eat clean and live a healthy and active lifestyle. My goal was to fulfill my daily nutritional needs through whole foods that would provide me with the fuel I needed to perform at a high level, recover from intense training, and promote longevity.
I had never been one to take loads of supplements. I was always skeptical of the claims that marketers used to sell the newest secret to weight loss success, promises of anti-aging, increased vitality, or products for any of the other goals we typically have that enable us to become the best versions of ourselves.
My goal was to provide my body with all the nutrition it needed on a daily basis from plant-based whole foods. I came to learn that this is more challenging than I thought. The more I discovered about food production as it exists today, the more I realized how nutritionally inadequate the things that pass as food these days are. The deteriorating nutritional density of the food we eat, even when following a whole food plant-based diet, is cause for concern.
Numerous research studies, like that from the Lawrence Pauling Institute, indicate that the majority of Americans fail to meet adequate levels for essential vitamins and minerals. This means that we aren't providing our body with everything it needs to function at a high level and thrive.
After learning about this research, I felt compelled to supplement my diet with targeted nutrients. The problem that arose from this is that I found my medicine cabinet beginning to look eerily similar to someone on the opposite end of the health spectrum who may be suffering from chronic illnesses and taking 5-10 different medications per day. Taking all these products was especially problematic anytime I was traveling or away from home for an extended period of time.
Since it was a big pain in the ass to have so many bottles on hand, especially when traveling, I attempted to simplify everything by putting an entire week's supply into a single bottle. This was still not practical as I often had to hunt through different capsules and tablets in the hope that I was taking the right amount of each. It was a bit like supplement roulette…give the bottle a shake, see what comes out, and throw it down the hatch. I guess, organizing everything into tiny ziplock baggies like Katy Perry is a good idea, but even that seemed like too much work.
I experienced the same thing when working as a field sales rep for Metagenics. I would travel around the country with a suitcase full of vitamins, powders, and tablets that I would use as samples when presenting at patient support groups and attending conferences. Imagine going through airport security…I would constantly get treated as if I was smuggling drugs. Needless to say, I finally gave up and decided to start checking my luggage because it just wasn’t worth the hassle.
Not only was all this terribly inconvenient but it was also VERY expensive. To fill the nutritional deficiencies in my diet, I found myself taking a multivitamin, fish oils, probiotics, CoQ10, and a number of other products that were deemed to help me live optimally. Plus, on top of this was protein powder, which added additional cost and inconvenience. Even with my generous employee discount, I was still spending upwards of $150 on supplements every month and nothing about it was easy. I was fed up, and I decided that something needed to be done. I wasn’t willing to stop supplementing because I felt great and was rarely sick, which means that something must have been working. The problem I was looking to solve was how to get the most of what I needed in the least number of products. In order to accomplish this, I began researching what the most common nutritional deficiencies are and what supplements have been scientifically proven to provide real health benefits.
Breaking Down the Most Common Nutritional Deficiencies
Before we get to the solution I arrived at, let’s first take a look at why supplementing your diet is important in the first place. After all, we've always been told that if we eat a well-rounded diet and adhere to the USDA food pyramid, we should have all the nutrients that our body needs. The problem is, this is the big fat lie that industrial food companies with deep pockets who control the governmental recommendations through power, influence, and MONEY have told us. They set these recommendations to meet the bare minimum requirements and not designed for someone who wants to live optimally. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing that you’re like me and you don’t want to just survive, you want to THRIVE!
We should note that the intent of any dietary supplementation program should be to SUPPLEMENT a healthy diet and not to replace food altogether or to make up for poor food choices. The purpose of food is to provide key nutrients that our body needs to function and to be used as fuel for energy. The problem today is the food we consume is less nutrient dense than 50 years ago. This has made it increasingly difficult to get what our body needs from food alone. A recent paper by scientists from the Council for Responsible Nutrition in Washington reports:
“In large proportions of the population, micronutrient sufficiency is currently not being achieved through food solutions for several essential vitamins and minerals. Use of age- and gender-specific multivitamin supplements may serve as a practical means to increase the micronutrient status in subpopulations of Americans while not increasing intakes above the upper intake level.”
The reason why this problem exists is multi-factorial but can be largely attributed to depleted nutrients in the soil, the use of pesticides in agriculture, unnatural diets filled with processed foods, and exposure to harmful levels of hormones, antibiotics, and chemicals from the food we consume. Our bodies have not evolved to handle all the dietary changes, toxins and external stressors that exist in modern life, which is why we need to add nutrient support to help us combat the onslaught of factors that can lead to deteriorating health.
The biggest surprise came when I learned more about crop production in the U.S. and that due to loose governmental regulations, even organic sources of fruits and vegetables may be contaminated with pesticides and not adhere to higher quality standards than conventionally farmed produce. In 2009, after reviewing 162 scientific studies published between 1958 and February 2008, the British Food Standards Agency concluded:
“No evidence of a difference in the content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content. The differences detected in the content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are biologically plausible and most likely relate to differences in crop or animal management and soil quality. It should be noted that these conclusions relate to the evidence base currently available, which contains limitations in the design and in the comparability of studies. There is no good evidence that increased dietary intake, of the nutrients identified in this review to be present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is, therefore, unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.”
Stanford researchers in 2012 had done a similar meta-study and had similar conclusions, however, organic foods advocates have criticized the study arguing that the study takes a narrow view on organic goods because it fails to consider other reasons why consumers choose organically grown foods like avoiding hormones, pesticides, and other chemicals. Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on, it is safe to assume that food production as a whole, whether organically or conventionally produced, results in is less nutrient dense food than what existed during the Paleolithic era. This change in food production began to occur as little as 50 years ago and has become increasingly worse just in the last couple of decades, which has not yet given us time to adapt, causing our health to suffer.
While there may be little we can do to change how food is produced at scale, the choice each of us does have is to decide what we use to fuel our bodies. For me, that answer is eating whole foods as close to their natural source as possible combined with a targeted supplement regimen to provide the nutritional insurance my body needs. So the question remains, what are the common nutritional deficiencies that exist in our diet and what can we do to avoid nutrient deficiencies? Since we are all genetically different and respond differently to food and environment, a good place to start is to get your labs done to identify your unique nutrient levels and find out what your specific needs may be. Depending on your healthcare provider and your health goals, you may need to seek more comprehensive analysis through a naturopathic or holistic medicine practitioner. For an easy and comprehensive solution, check out Wellness FX. This company provides various packages to allow you to get additional biomarkers checked that primary care physician typically requests. For a broader approach to preventing deficiencies, below is a list of the most common nutritional deficiencies that occur and general recommendations on how to avoid them.
The most common way we get vitamin D is through sun exposure, however, applying protective sunscreen and the strength of the UV index determine how much (if any) vitamin D will our body produce. We can get vitamin D in the diet through foods such as eggs and fish, but many of Americans fail to reach optimal levels and a large percentage are vitamin D deficient.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that our bodies do not produce, which is why we must get it through sun exposure, diet, or supplementation. Vitamin D is essential to human survival and plays a critical role in overall health. Vitamin D acts on over 1000 different genes and serves as a substrate for sex hormones like testosterone, human growth hormone, and estrogen. It moderates immune function and inflammation. It assists in calcium metabolism and bone formation.
For moderate supplementation, a 1,000-2,000IU dose of vitamin D3 is sufficient to meet the needs of most of the population. This is the lowest effective dose range. Higher doses, based on body weight, are in the range of 20-80IU/kg daily.
Experts recommended Vitamin D3 supplementation (cholecalciferol) over D2 supplementation (ergocalciferol), since we use D3 more effectively in the body.
With an estimated 80 percent of Americans deficient, magnesium nutritional deficiencies are one of the most common in developed countries, second only to Vitamin D. Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body and plays a critical role in many of the body’s biological processes. Simply put, a magnesium deficiency prevents the body from functioning properly and limits our ability to live optimally.
An important role of magnesium is to protect us from heavy metals and toxins that we are regularly exposed to through environment and food. Without adequate levels of magnesium, these toxins will build up in our system over time and wreak havoc by interrupting our normal metabolic and enzymatic processes, including those involved in ATP (energy) production.
The risks of magnesium deficiency can be severe. It has attributed to increased blood pressure, reduced glucose tolerance, neural excitation, heart arrhythmias, tachycardia, headaches, muscle cramps, nausea, metabolic syndrome, migraines, pretty much an onslaught of detrimental effects on our health. We can get magnesium from green leafy vegetables, nuts & seeds, seaweed, and avocados, however, due to the depleted minerals in our soil and poor farming practices it makes it nearly impossible for us to get the magnesium our bodies require from diet alone.
It would be prudent for everyone to supplement with a standard magnesium dose in the range of 200-400 mg per day. A dosage of 400-800 mg per day may be optimal for athletes and serious fitness enthusiasts due to increased loss of minerals through sweat. For best absorption look for chelated minerals in the form citrate, malate, glycinate, threonate, or orotate. Even better, check out algae-based forms of magnesium for a nutrient-dense whole food plant-based source.
Vitamin K2 may be just as important as Vitamin D for optimal health. The recommended daily intake (RDI) for Vitamin K is sufficient to support healthy blood coagulation, however, other benefits may be derived from Vitamin K2 supplementation, which we fail to get enough of through our diet.
Health professionals associated Optimal levels of vitamin K2 with improved bone circumference and diameter, tissue growth, and cell renewal. Vitamin K2 can also protect cardiovascular health by reducing the calcification and stiffening of arteries. Vitamin K2 works as a transport vehicle in the body to remove calcium from the blood to prevent buildup in the arteries. Vitamin K2 works synergistically with Vitamin D since both support bone health, which is why they are often supplemented together.
Vitamin K1, which is primarily responsible for blood clotting, is in green leafy vegetables, whereas Vitamin K2 is only present in fermented foods, such as nato and sauerkraut, and can also be found in grass-fed animal products. Since it is often difficult to find grass-fed meats and many of us don’t consume a lot of fermented foods, it is important to get K2 through supplementation.
There are two forms of Vitamin K2, MK-4, and MK-7. There is mixed research regarding which form is best. MK-7 is what you would find in whole foods (most commonly fermented from soy) whereas MK-4 although synthetic, is also hypoallergenic. A research study done in Japan demonstrated that,
“Vitamin K2 has been shown to decrease fractures and has even been approved by the Ministry of Health in Japan since 1995 for the treatment of osteoporosis and osteoporosis pain."
There is strong evidence to support benefits and reasons for Vitamin K2 supplementation. A standard daily dose of Vitamin K supplementation varies by person, but 100mcg coming from MK-7 is a good baseline to aim for.
When we hear B12, most of us think of energy. B12 is an essential vitamin that plays a vital role in neurological function, energy production, helps make DNA, nerve and blood cells, and is crucial for a healthy brain and immune system.
The types of food we eat and the inability to absorb B12 can lead to a deficiency. Most people have suboptimal levels of B12 because we generally do not consume foods rich in this vitamin. Vegans are especially prone to B12 nutritional deficiency since we can only find it in its natural form in animal foods. We can get B12 through our diet by eating beef and beef liver (grass-fed beef is highly preferable to the grain-fed variety), lamb, snapper, venison, salmon, shrimp, scallops, organic-pastured poultry, and eggs.
Anyone eating a plant-based diet would stand to benefit from B12 supplementation. The effects of a nutritional deficiency may not present for quite some time but can lead to brain fog, fatigue, tingling of the extremities, mood swings, muscle weakness, and more severe neurological disorders if ignored and untreated. Also important is an adequate intake of folate in the form of folinic acid or 5-MTHF. Studies have shown that the methylcobalamin form of B12 instead of cyanocobalamin is more bio-available. Specialists recommended an oral dose of around 1,000mcg per day if at risk for B12 deficiency.
Vitamin A is an essential fat-soluble vitamin that many of us fail to get enough of from diet alone. Organ meats such as beef liver, kidney, and heart from grass-fed cattle, cod liver oil, and raw organic dairy products are the best sources of Vitamin A.
There are 2 types of Vitamin A, retinol and beta-carotene. Retinol is the form that your body can readily use whereas beta-carotene must go through a conversion process in the body before it can fulfill its role in helping to maintain healthy skin, teeth, bones, cell membranes, and vision. Vitamin A, like vitamin D, is also essential for your immune system. It’s a precursor to active hormones that regulate the expression of your genes.
The primary source of beta-carotene in the diet comes from fruits and vegetables such as carrots which must be combined with healthy fats to produce bile and broken down in the gut to be converted. The body is generally a very poor converter of beta-carotene to usable retinol, especially because many Americans have poor gut health, which is where this conversion takes place. For this reason, Vitamin A supplementation is important for most people, especially for vegans and vegetarians who are not getting retinol from animal sources.
Vitamin A nutritional deficiency is extremely common in developing countries and areas of poverty where children do not have access to foods with Vitamin A. Without Vitamin A, children are more susceptible to life-threatening illnesses, which can cause them to get sick, go blind, or die prematurely. The organization Vitamin Angels is helping to mitigate this risk and save lives by providing Vitamin A supplementation to children in need.
Iodine is most commonly found in seafood and is especially high in sea vegetables like seaweed, kelp, and spirulina. Iodine is crucial for proper thyroid function and metabolism and is found in every organ and tissue. An iodine deficiency can result in an improper function of tissues and organs and can lead to lower immunity levels. Many people are deficient or at risk for deficiency, especially vegetarians, vegans, and others who actively avoid processed foods and eat only a small amount of fish. Recommendations for daily iodine supplementation to protect against nutritional deficiency are in the range of 75-150 mcg per day.
When eating a typical western diet, it is common to consume excessive amounts of Omega-6 fats, Omega-6 have clinically shown to increase inflammation in the body, a leading cause of many of the lifestyle diseases we suffer from such as heart disease and obesity. Maintaining a healthy ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fats (at least 1:1 or greater) is crucial for optimal health, however, the ratio commonly found when eating a western diet is more like 1:20 or 1:50. We largely attributed it to the high amounts of processed vegetable oils (like high fructose corn syrup) found in most of the processed and packaged products we consume.
To achieve the proper balance of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fats, one should eliminate and avoid fried foods and consume grass-fed (and finished) beef and wild caught fish. Getting these foods may be challenging, which is why supplementation of EPA and DHA may be necessary. Fish-oil and krill oil supplementation are common, however, effectiveness can vary widely due to quality. Deteriorating quality of fisheries and high concentrations of other unwanted heavy metals and minerals like mercury can make finding a quality Omega-3 supplement challenging.
Additionally, vegans and vegetarians who avoid fish and animal products require plant-based sources such as flax or chia. The fatty acid in flax and chia are in the form of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) which is not a great converter into EPA. Fortunately, there are non-GMO plant-based sources such as Ahiflower that converts SDA more efficiently to EPA in the body than flax or chia and which is more sustainable than Omega-3’s from fish or krill oil. EPA from algae is also a good option for quality and sustainability reasons.
When supplementing, most experts agree that a 2:1 ratio of EPA to DHA is ideal with the total recommended dose being around 1,000 to 2,000 mg daily. EPA and DHA are responsible for different mechanisms in the body. EPA is vital for regulating inflammation and immune function, allowing it to positively impact heart health, as well as enhance joint health and improves inflammatory conditions. DHA, on the other hand, can be very beneficial for cognitive and visual development.
The aforementioned nutritional deficiencies are the ones typically found to be most common, however, other deficiencies may result depending on dietary and lifestyle factors. Additional deficiencies to be aware of are Vitamin C, selenium, calcium, copper, and iron. For a long time, I assumed that I could get what my body needs on a daily basis through a multivitamin and diet alone, but what I discovered is that many products on the market neglect to provide elevated levels of these key nutrients that help to not only protect from deficiency but live optimally. As a result, I found myself taking a multivitamin in addition to separate Vitamin D, B12, fish oil, probiotics, zinc, and magnesium supplements. This daily supplement regimen became increasingly difficult to manage, which is why I sought a solution to simplify without sacrificing the health benefits I had gained.
The result of this pain point for me is what led to the 2-year process of developing a product that would not only protect against deficiencies but also include optimal levels of key nutrients and targeted therapeutics to allow me to accomplish my daily nutritional needs as simply and effectively as possible. I knew it would be impossible to get EVERYTHING into one formulation, which is why the goal was to create a product that would accomplish 90% of the daily essentials in one, thus eliminating the need to take 5-6 different products. Not only has this provided me with better compliance and convenience for my supplement regimen, but it has also become much easier to get what I need while traveling and fly through the airport security line with ease.
Living healthy does not have to be difficult. Once we cut through the marketing noise and get down to the science of what has been proven to work it really isn’t very complicated. Eating a mostly whole food plant-based diet consisting of organic fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean protein will generally lead to good health. However, if your goal is to live optimally, it would be wise to supplement your healthy diet with vitamins, minerals, and therapeutics that will enable you to thrive, giving you the energy and vitality you need to “Live Your Fullest Everyday”.
- Wallace, T., McBurney, M., & Fulgoni, V., 3rd. (2014). Multivitamin/mineral supplement contribution to micronutrient intakes in the United States, 2007-2010. Retrieved April 25, 2016, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24724766
- Systematic review of differences in nutrient content of organically and conventionally produced food. (2010, September 28). Retrieved April 25, 2016, from http://tna.europarchive.org/20100929190231/http://www.food.gov.uk/science/research/choiceandstandardsresearch/consumerchoicestandards/l01list/organicreview
- Shiraki, M., Shiraki, Y., Aoki, C., & Miura, M. (2000, March 15). Using PubMed. Retrieved April 25, 2016, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?orig_db=PubMed
- Emaus, N., Gjesdal, C., Almas, B., Christensen, M., Grimsgaard, A., Berntsen, G., . . . Fonnebo, V. (2010, October 2). Result Filters. Retrieved April 25, 2016, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19937427
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Written by Chris Manderino
Co-Founder of LYFE Fuel in Newport Beach, CA. Chris was an NFL fullback for the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs before embarking on a journey to pursue his passion for health & nutrition. Chris is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and earned a completion certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Course in Plant-Based Nutrition.