By Dr. Libby Weaver Internationally acclaimed nutritional biochemist, author and speaker.
We live in a world of abundant food and yet many people are under-nourished. By this I mean they are low, lacking or even deficient in some very important nutrients. It is more and more common for people to experience their clothes getting tighter even when they are malnourished, in our world of prevalent processed foods that offer little to no nourishment.
If you’re someone who mostly eats processed foods, or regularly eats takeaway meals, you may not be eating enough nutrient-dense foods. Let’s explore five nutrients you may not be getting enough of.
Iron helps deliver oxygen throughout the body and is important for transforming food into energy. It assists in making neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain), and it even plays an important role in the immune system. Iron deficiency is reportedly the most common dietary deficiency in the world.
When we don’t get enough iron, the main symptoms include exhaustion, shortness of breath (especially on an incline), muscle aches and cramps, rapid pulse and heart palpitations, increased anxiety, brain fog, poor memory and concentration, headaches, depressed mood, hair loss and an increased frequency of infections.
How to get more iron:
Food sources of iron include beef, lamb, eggs, mussels, dates and green leafy vegetables. Variety is key, as there is a small amount of iron in many foods. If you do not eat animal foods, do not assume you are iron-deficient. For some vegetarians, their body utilises the iron from vegetables sources very efficiently, while others don’t. Vegetable sources of iron are better absorbed in the presence of vitamin C. It is best to have a test before you supplement with iron.
You can also help your body absorb non-haem iron by avoiding tea, coffee and red wine at meals since the tannins they contain inhibit non-haem iron absorption.
Iodine is needed for numerous processes and systems inside the body, including those that make thyroid hormones, which help to control metabolism, growth and development (including growth and development of the brain). Iodine is also essential for healthy ovarian function, playing a role in helping to ease some of the symptoms of premenstrual tension (PMT).
Iodine deficiency can lead to dull brittle hair, balding, lack of skin tone and/or very dry skin, low energy levels, difficulty dealing with temperature change (feeling “cold in your bones”), poor concentration, constipation, depressed mood, puffy eyes and extreme fatigue.
How to get more iodine:
Foods that contain iodine include some seafood, seaweeds such as kelp, and some salts. Not all salts contain iodine so be sure to read the label and ensure that the salt you use does, to help contribute towards your intake. If you don’t eat these foods daily, it may be wise to supplement.
Selenium is an incredibly important trace element that is essential to our wellbeing. The body needs it in small amounts for several functions including to help regulate thyroid hormones and support a healthy immune system. It is an antioxidant mineral responsible for preventing free-radical damage to cells that regenerates vitamins C and E, thereby decreasing the ageing of skin. The importance of selenium in animal nutrition was first discovered in the 1950s, when it was shown that myopathies (neuromuscular disorders) in sheep and cattle could be prevented by adding selenium and vitamin E to their diet.
Selenium deficiency can be hard to recognise however the skin will be prone to dryness and sensitivity, lacking radiance with possible signs of premature ageing.
How to get more selenium:
Very few foods contain selenium as if a nutrient isn’t in the soil, it can’t be in our food. The simplest way to improve our selenium intake is to eat two to four Brazil nuts each day, as these are the richest food source of selenium.
What does this mineral not do? Zinc is needed to make insulin and digestive enzymes, to maintain a healthy immune system, for great skin, for sex hormone balance, and for male reproductive health. It is also critical for wound healing and the maintenance of your vision, taste and smell.
Signs of deficiency include poor blood glucose management, sugar cravings, loss of appetite, poor resistance to infection, skin infections, easy skin scarring, lowered fertility and white spots on fingernails—along with a host of other problems.
How to get more zinc:
Foods that contain zinc include oysters from clean waters, beef, lamb, eggs, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. Zinc can be taken as a supplement. However, because many substances in food including fibre can interfere with its absorption, it is best taken before bed, away from food, to maximise absorption.
Vitamin D has a number of critical functions in the body, including helping the absorption of calcium and phosphorous. It is vital for healthy bones and muscles, immune function, the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and type-2 diabetes, as well as healthy ovulation and hence sex hormone balance.
Signs of vitamin D deficiency include bone and muscle pain, and deficiency has been associated with increased risk of various cancers, autoimmune diseases, hypertension and infectious diseases.
How to get more vitamin D:
Even though there are some dietary sources of vitamin D available (organic butter, oily fish, eggs), there’s often not enough in what is considered an ‘average’ diet to obtain what you need. However, the most effective way to increase your vitamin D status is relatively easy - focus on safe sun exposure. Obviously, the ease with which can achieve this varies depending on the time of year and where you are located. Alternatively, you can consider a good quality vitamin D supplement.