Are You Vitamin or Mineral Deficient?

Alexa Ferrante

Four minute read

What Does it Mean to Be Vitamin or Mineral Deficient?

Vitamins make up the essential nutrients that the body needs to function properly.  Most of us know that good nutrition is important for good health.  According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “Nutritional needs should be met primarily from foods. Individuals should aim to meet their nutrient needs through healthy eating patterns that include nutrient-dense foods ... [which] contain essential vitamins and minerals and also dietary fiber and other naturally occurring substances (phytochemicals) that have positive health effects.”

While there may be a need to supplement our diet at certain times in our lives, the safety of taking a supplement also needs to be considered. Too much of some vitamins and minerals can cause health issues; and, therefore, recommended levels should not be exceeded.

What Causes Vitamin Deficiency?

Pre-existing conditions can have an effect on the amount nutrients that the body can process, including:

  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Cancer treatment
  • Chronic pain conditions
  • Digestive disorders or intestinal problems ( i.e.. lack of intrinsic factor)
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Smoking
  • Stress/ wounds

However, the most common causes of vitamin deficiency come from poor dietary choices. The best way to stay healthy is to choose a wide variety of nutritious foods from all five MyPlate food groups. MyPlate is the current nutrition guide published by the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, a food circle depicting a place setting with a plate and glass divided into five food groups. It replaced the USDA's MyPyramid guide on June 2, 2011, ending 19 years of USDA food pyramid diagrams. 

Who Needs to Supplement?

While nutrient deficiencies are not common among Americans, for varying reasons some people cannot reach the recommended nutrient amounts without using supplements and/or including fortified foods. In addition to a balanced diet, those individuals may need nutrient supplements depending on their situation.

It is important however to have the vitamin or mineral level checked by your primary care physician before taking supplements—especially those that may be harmful when taken in large dosages.

Here are some examples of groups of people who may need multivitamin and or mineral supplementation:

  • Older adults, pregnant women and people who are food insecure are at increased risk of nutrient deficiencies.
  • People with poor intake (eating less than 1,600 calories each day) due to poor appetite or have trouble eating because of the alcohol or drugs.
  • People with limited food choices due to allergies, a medical condition, or because they are following a vegetarian or vegan diet. (Animal foods are the main source of vitamin B12, so people who follow a vegan diet need to eat fortified foods and/or take a supplement of B12)
  • Women who could become pregnant need to obtain adequate folic acid from fortified foods (cereals and other grains), supplements or both, in addition to consuming foliate from foods in a varied diet. Because it helps reduce the risk of some birth defects, folic acid is very important during childbearing years. If lab tests show that a woman's iron status is low during pregnancy, her healthcare provider will recommend an iron supplement.
  • Infants, children and young adults may not get enough vitamin D. Infants who are breast-fed and children who consume less than the recommended amount of vitamin D fortified milk or formula and those with increased risk of deficiency likely will need supplemental vitamin D. Adolescent girls, meanwhile, might need additional iron.
  • As people age it can be difficult to get enough vitamins B12 and D. Luckily, this is one of the cases where supplements can make a difference. Getting B12 from fortified foods or taking it alone or as part of a multivitamin/mineral can help raise B12 in your blood. If you're taking calcium or a multivitamin/mineral, choose one that also has vitamin D.

Other groups who may require additional supplementation include people who are taking certain medications or have a health condition that changes how their body uses nutrients, and individuals who have been told by their doctor they have a specific nutrient deficiency.

Your doctor can order tests to help determine if taking a supplement would benefit you. The results might show that you are low in a certain nutrient or you might discover that you're doing just fine. Additionally, review your current diet. A Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist (RDN) can help you evaluate the foods you eat and make recommendations to meet your personal needs.

The Role of Fortified Foods

Supplements don't only come in a bottle or a pill. Many foods including cereals, breads, pastas, energy bars and drinks are fortified with vitamins, minerals, herbs and amino acids — the building blocks of proteins. Foods should be factored in when considering a dietary supplement. Consuming too much of one nutrient may pose serious health threats. Consult a registered dietitian nutritionist to help evaluate your daily diet prior to starting a supplement regimen and provide an individualized nutrition plan.

Remember, real food contains healthy things a pill can't give us. When we take a nutrient out of a food and concentrate it in a pill, it's not quite the same thing. Be sure to consider your individual situation and consult a doctor or an RDN before considering supplements.

Blog post reviewed by Mojgan Ehtemam, a registered dietitian and director of food and nutrition at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center.

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