Almost two in three Australian adults are deemed overweight and the average household discards more than $1,000 worth of food each year. Despite this over-abundance, many of us are still nutritionally deficient. The growth of the fast food industry along with changing agricultural practices means the type and quality of food we put into our bodies often isn’t the best, with increased intakes of sugar, fat and salt-heavy processed foods.
Nutritional deficiencies can cause a range of problems—from fatigue to weight gain and decreased immunity, and can even endanger lives. So, it’s a good idea to be familiar with some of the more common modern day conditions and how they can affect your overall health.
Here are five to keep your eye on…
- Iron deficiency
Feelings of tiredness and fatigue along with dizziness, breathlessness and decreased immunity are symptoms of low iron levels. Unfortunately, this deficiency is common—the World Health Organisation labels it as the “…most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world, and the only one which is significantly prevalent in industrialised countries.
If you are menstruating and have heavy periods, or you are pregnant or lactating, your chances of being low in iron are increased. Babies, toddlers and teenage girls are also in this higher risk group.
Low iron can lead to iron deficiency anaemia, so it’s important to get medical advice if you suspect you may be iron deficient. Treatment may include supplements, as well as incorporating more iron-rich foods into your diet—like whole grain cereals, red meat, poultry and green leafy vegetables.
- Iodine deficiency
Our bodies need iodine to produce thyroid hormones. Our thyroid is a gland that regulates important things like growth, development and energy use—including in the brain.
A lack of iodine in our diet can cause an enlarged thyroid gland (goitre) or other iodine deficiency disorders. Other symptoms include dry skin, fatigue, hair loss and weight gain.
This common deficiency affects nearly one in three people worldwide. Iodine mostly comes from what we eat and drink. Foods grown in iodine-depleted soils, and meat from animals grazing in iodine-depleted areas, have lower iodine levels.
To combat this problem, iodised salt is often recommended and Australian bakers are actually required to use it over regular salt. Doctors often recommend iodine supplementation for pregnant and breastfeeding women, too.
- Calcium deficiency
Calcium deficiency is a common problem in Australia and, unfortunately, it’s a tough one to spot.
Calcium is more than just the building block for healthy teeth and bones. It also plays an important role in other systems throughout the body, including the functioning of nerves and muscle tissue and blood clotting.
The best method for ensuring adequate calcium levels is to make sure you’re aware of the recommended daily intake for your stage of life. A low dietary intake of calcium means your body will remove it from your skeleton, causing weak and brittle bones.
Foods that are high in calcium include milk and milk products; leafy green vegetables; soy and tofu; sardines and salmon (with bones); brazil nuts; almonds and sesame seed paste (tahini); calcium-fortified breakfast cereals; fruit juices and bread.
- Zinc deficiency
Low immunity, increased colds and a loss of appetite may be signs of a zinc deficiency. These things are, of course, a sign of many other conditions, too. It’s also a difficult one to diagnose, since tests are often only useful in cases of severe deficiency.
Like calcium, the best way to ensure adequate zinc levels is by eating zinc-rich foods. Lean red meat, dairy foods and seafood are all rich in zinc. If your diet is high in plant-based foods, you’ll need to eat these in a way that encourages zinc absorption. This means soaking and sprouting legumes and nuts, or choosing fermented foods like sourdough bread.
- Vitamin D deficiency
A vitamin D deficiency is a product of our modern lives, but it’s not as closely related to our food intake as the other deficiencies mentioned above. We get only about 5 to 10 per cent of our required vitamin D from food, and things like oily fish and eggs only contain small amounts of this vitamin.
The best source of vitamin D is actually sunshine. Sometimes, indoor working environments and other lifestyle factors means we don’t get enough sun exposure to maintain adequate levels of this important vitamin. And because sun exposure is also a leading cause of skin cancer, it’s a difficult balance to get right.
It’s harder to spot a vitamin D deficiency, but if you think you’re not spending much time in the sun, a simple blood test can quickly determine your levels. Without treatment, this deficiency can lead to poor health outcomes and increase your risk of musculoskeletal conditions.
If you’re concerned that you have a nutritional deficiency, it’s important to see a doctor, rather than self-diagnosing or letting it go untreated. A doctor can work towards determining the underlying cause of your symptoms and can consider other common modern day nutritional deficiencies.
Some handy information is available at: