When it comes to eating a balanced diet that is rich in all the nutrients, vitamins & minerals our bodies need, many of us fall short.
Our hectic lifestyles can often leave us reaching for convenience foods, and while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing every now and then, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey revealed most Brits are at a higher risk of a nutrition deficiency as a consequence of our diets.
The bad news here is that a deficiency in any key nutrients can significantly weaken our immune systems, and leave us feeling fatigued and prone to headaches. On the more severe end, a deficiency can impact our cognitive function, heart health, bone health and more.
Fortunately, deficiencies can be reversed – or at least kept at bay – with a balanced diet and with a supplement or two incorporated into our daily routine.
But what are the top 10 nutrient deficiencies in the UK that you should be aware of? We have investigated to find out for you, and what common symptoms may occur in the process.
1. Magnesium deficiency
Magnesium is a crucial mineral that exists in the body. It is responsible for over 300 functions, including bones, teeth and metabolism.
One study of 8,000 people in the UK revealed up to 70% had low levels of magnesium, but signs of a deficiency aren’t always clear.
However, common symptoms include tiredness, fatigue, abnormal heart rhythm, muscle cramps, sleep disorders, anxiety, restless leg syndrome, migraines, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis.
To mitigate against a magnesium deficiency, consider taking a magnesium supplement and adding green vegetables, dark chocolate, whole grains and cashew nuts into your diet.
2. Iron deficiency
Iron is an essential mineral that is required to stimulate healthy red blood cells in our bodies.
However, iron deficiency is one of the most common types of deficiencies in the world. An estimated 2 billion people have an iron deficiency around the world, and almost 1 in 4 women in the UK are estimated to have low iron stores.
Vegetarians and vegans are at a heightened risk due to lower consumption of iron because they typically will only consume non-heme iron from vegetables, which does not absorb as well as heme iron found in red meat.
Classic symptoms of an iron deficiency include anaemia which affects red blood cell count and the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen decreases. Those with anaemia might look pale, suffer from tiredness and a lack of energy, experience heart palpitations and could be more vulnerable to infections. Hair loss, sleep disorders and restless leg syndrome can also occur.
Iron tablets can be consumed to boost iron levels in the blood, but make sure you’re also getting enough vegetables, kale and eggs in your diet – and red meat if you can.
You also need to be mindful that too much iron can be harmful, so be sure to speak to your GP about increasing your iron levels safely first.
3. Vitamin D
It’s no secret that the UK suffers from a lack of sunshine when compared to other countries. But did you know that’s why experts recommend most people in the UK take a vitamin D supplement, especially throughout the cold and dark winter months?
That’s because vitamin D is largely synthesized through sunlight. It doesn’t exist in many foods, and you would have to consume a lot of these foods to get the right amount.
Vitamin D is vital for helping the body to absorb calcium and to ward against blood clotting. Almost every cell in the human body has a receptor for vitamin D.
However, evidence shows 1 in 5 people aged between 19 to 64 in the UK suffer from low levels of Vitamin D. Symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency include muscle pain, constipation and bone and gum problems.
A vitamin D deficiency is not always immediately obvious – it may take years for symptoms to show. However, it’s important to watch as a deficiency can play a role in reducing immunity and even increasing the risk of cancer.
Upping your intake of oily fish, cod liver oil and egg yolks can boost vitamin D levels, but diet alone is unlikely to reverse the deficiency. In addition, you might want to consider consuming a vitamin D supplement or finding ways to increase your exposure to the sun.
4. Calcium deficiency
Calcium is vital for maintaining healthy teeth and strong bones as it circulates through the bloodstream.
Yet many dairy-free and plant-based diets drastically reduce calcium intake. After all, it can be difficult to boost calcium without dairy foods like cheese, milk and yoghurt.
A calcium deficiency might cause bone problems, which is particularly pertinent in children while they are still growing. Youngsters with a calcium deficiency might become vulnerable to rickets.
However, even adults can have a calcium deficiency and may experience insomnia because of it or even osteoporosis – the condition where sufferers have fragile bones.
Fortunately, dark leafy vegetables like kale, watercress and broccoli, as well as tofu, pulses, almonds and canned (boned) fish also contain calcium if cow’s milk is off the menu.
Some dairy-free milk alternatives also do a good job of adding calcium, but if intake is a concern, some supplements can prevent a deficiency when it’s difficult to increase calcium through diet alone.
5. Iodine deficiency
Iodine is another essential mineral that is vital for the function of the thyroid gland.
Iodine is involved in the production of thyroxine, which helps to promote a hormone that assists in thyroid function and our metabolism.
Thyroid hormones are also vital for supporting brain function, bone maintenance and an active metabolism (I.e., how the body burns calories).
But one study found that 51% of its participants showed signs of an iodine deficiency in the UK.
Symptoms include an increased heart rate, weight gain, shortness of breath and even an enlarged thyroid gland.
Iodine is largely found in soil and ocean water, making it quite difficult to consume just through diet alone. However, seaweed, fish, dairy and eggs are good places to start to increase iodine intake.
6. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is essential for brain function, nerve function and blood formation. In fact, every single cell in the human body requires B12 to function, yet the body is unable to naturally produce it.
That means you have to source B12 through diet – which again can be difficult for vegetarians, vegans and those following a plant-based diet since B12 is commonly found in animal produce.
A vitamin B12 deficiency can be dangerous, paving the way to a blood disorder such as megaloblastic amenia where red blood cells become enlarged.
You might also suffer from a heightened risk of other diseases due to the deficiency elevating homocysteine levels.
The other problem with B12 is that it is more complicated than that of other vitamins on this list since its aided by a protein, which many people are lacking, too.
However, it’s not just vegetarians at risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency: older adults can also become deficient since absorption of this vitamin decreases with age.
Organ meat, red meat, clams and oysters, eggs and milk are good sources of B12, but some deemed deficient might need B12 injections (especially when lacking the protein) while others will need a high dose of supplements.
Omega-3 is crucial for keeping the brain, heart and eyes in working condition. Yet a low consumption of omega-3 can lead to heart issues and cognitive decline.
Omega-3 is also important for maintaining healthy cell membranes, like skin, and some studies even find it essential for heart health as it can increase good cholesterol levels and simultaneously reduce inflammation.
That’s why the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fatty fish, is largely considered the best diet for overall health. In fact, nutritionists recommend consuming fish at least two times per week to prevent an omega-3 deficiency.
Yet two-thirds of people in the UK fail to consume enough fish each week to maintain healthy omega-3 levels.
If you aren’t able to increase your fish consumption, you still need to find ways to get 450mg of omega-3 in per day and may like to consider an omega-3 supplement.
We might commonly associate fibre with breakfast cereals and wholegrains, but why is it so important?
Fibre promotes a healthy digestive system and can mitigate against high cholesterol. Studies show it can control blood glucose levels, in turn reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and bowel cancer.
Indeed, it’s vital for controlling blood sugar levels – and low fibre can lead to constipation and other digestive issues.
Yet only 1 in 9 adults in the UK manage to get their fibre intake at the recommended amounts, particularly as low-carb diet trends can steer away from high fibre foods.
To prevent a fibre deficiency, make sure you’re eating those wholegrain cereals but also beans, pulses, lentils, fruit and vegetables.
9. Vitamin A
Another common vitamin deficiency is vitamin A.
Vitamin A is an essential fat-soluble vitamin which maintains healthy skin, teeth, bones and cell membranes as well as eyes.
The vitamin is particularly useful for vision, and those with a deficiency can experience temporary and even permanent damage to their eyes, sometimes even resulting in blindness. In fact, studies show that vitamin A deficiency is the world’s leading cause of blindness.
The good news is that a vitamin A deficiency can be rare with 75% of people who follow a Western diet being in the clear.
Organ meat, fish liver oil, sweet potatoes, carrots and leafy vegetables are all great sources of vitamin A.
Potassium is an electrolyte which helps to regulate blood pressure, promote healthy heart function and maintain body fluid levels.
However, a potassium deficiency might appear in patients with high blood pressure.
UK guidance recommends four daily servings of potassium, but it can be difficult to achieve this just through diet alone.
Indeed, bananas are a great source of potassium, but that doesn’t mean you should be eating four whole bananas a day.
Instead, consider adding more vegetables like Swiss chard, spinach and squash to your diet, as well as dried fruit, oily fish, beans and avocados.