Maybe you think you eat pretty healthy, but then you start to think of all the meals you skip or the snacking you do — Did I really just eat an entire box of Thin Mints? The thing is, the body will let you know if if you’re not getting enough nutrients, it’s just a matter of paying attention. You may have a hearty daily breakfast, for example, like oatmeal with a banana or almonds … but then you have back-to-back meetings at work and skip lunch (again). You find a box of cookies in your desk and think they’ll tide you over till dinner. Right?
“We must all remember, our bodies are machines and run with food — and that's our fuel,” dietitian and nutrition coach Naria Le Mire tells TZR. “I always explain to my clients how we all have an incredibly unique relationship with our own bodies. And, like all relationships, it should include giving and receiving.”
However, she says we tend to neglect our own bodies and pursue plans without consideration. “For example, many people may skip eating meals because they find themselves busy at work or with family,” she says. “Next thing they know, it's 4 p.m. and no food (i.e., nutrients) was provided for the body. And although the individual may not experience short-term consequences, their body begins to suffer.”
She says a malnourished body comes in all sizes. “When the body does not receive the nutrients it needs, it will eventually begin to show,” Le Mire explains. “Often, you may find deficiencies via lab work with your healthcare provider, and other times, it's with signs. These include fatigue, irritableness, hair loss, weak nails, a weakened immune system, or appetite changes.” You may also experience unintended weight loss, getting sick more often, having wounds that take longer to heal, and low mood or depression.
Looking at what you eat each day may be scary, especially if you know you could be consuming more nutrients, but it’s necessary. “One of the first steps to take is to examine your current eating patterns,” Patricia Bannan, registered dietitian, author of From Burnout to Balance, and Nature Made ambassador, tells TZR. “Do you consume a range of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, dairy (or a dairy alternative), grains, and legumes? Having a base of colorful, plant-based foods can help you build a strong nutrient foundation.”
However, whether it’s based on food preferences, culture, or food availability, maybe you don’t check all those boxes all of the time, Bannan notes. “It’s also possible that you’re eating a nutrient-rich diet, but your body is not absorbing the nutrients well due to an underlying health condition,” she says.
Key Signs You’re Not Getting Enough Nutrients
“While the body can produce many nutrients on its own, there are many others that must be consumed from food,” Bannan explains. “These are considered essential nutrients and are needed for survival. Each nutrient plays its own specific role in normal functioning, ranging from bone health and heart health to muscle contractions and nerve impulses to reproductive health and more.” As a result, over time, lacking specific nutrients can lead to serious health complications.
To this end, Bannan says there are different signs of nutrient deficiencies to keep an eye out for. “They can exhibit in many ways, particularly depending on the nutrient,” she says. “For example, frequently getting sick may indicate a lack of important vitamins for the immune system, including vitamins A, C, and D, and the minerals zinc and selenium. Meanwhile, fatigue is often related to a deficiency in vitamin B12 or magnesium since they play a role in energy metabolism, or iron, since it is vital for oxygen transfer in the body.” And she says that a noticeable change in mood or cognitive function may be tied to poor food intake of carbohydrates (since carbohydrates are the main fuel source for the brain).
DJ Blatner, registered dietitian nutritionist and NOW wellness expert, adds that it is also important to look at the “nutrients of concern” as identified by the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (This is a collective effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, HHS.) “One of the nutrients we are most likely not getting enough of is calcium,” she tells TZR in an email. “This is a mineral that is most often associated with healthy bones and teeth, although it also plays an important role in blood clotting, helping muscles to contract, and regulates normal heart rhythms and nerve functions.” Symptoms of a calcium deficiency can include muscle aches, cramps, and spasms, pain in the thighs and arms when walking or moving, and numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, she explains.
Potassium is another nutrient you may be lacking. “It is a mineral, and its main role in the body is to help maintain normal levels of fluid inside our cells,” says Blatner. “Sodium, its counterpart, maintains normal fluid levels outside of cells. Potassium also helps muscles to contract and supports normal blood pressure.” If you’re lacking potassium, you may feel weak, tired, have muscle cramps, feel confused, be constipated, have an abnormal heartbeat, feel tingling or numbness, and experience increased urination.
“Dietary fiber is also an essential part of a healthful diet,” says Blatner. “It is crucial for keeping the gut healthy and reducing the risk of chronic health conditions. Signs you aren’t eating enough fiber can include constipation, hunger soon after eating, high cholesterol, and constantly feeling tired or sluggish.”
Vitamin D is another nutrient that is essential for maintaining healthy bones and teeth. “It, too, plays many other important roles in the body, including regulating inflammation and immune function,” Blatner explains. “Our bodies create vitamin D through sun exposure, but you can also get vitamin D through food sources and supplements. Symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency can be subtle, but most often present as fatigue/tiredness and bone pain.”
And a nutrient of concern specifically for women of childbearing age (or who are breast-feeding) is iron. “It is a component of hemoglobin, a type of protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to all parts of the body,” says Blatner. “Without enough iron, there is less oxygen being transported, which leads to feelings of fatigue or to a condition known as anemia.” Hair loss can also be a sign you need more iron.
How To Improve Your Nutrition
“The best way to determine if you’re experiencing a vitamin deficiency is to talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns and ask them to order any necessary bloodwork,” Stacy Leung, a registered dietician and mom, tells TZR in an email. “Many factors can contribute to symptoms of vitamin deficiencies. For example, hair loss can be related to stress, age, being newly post-partum, or having an iron deficiency.” If the bloodwork finds that you do, in fact, have a vitamin deficiency, it is then helpful to speak to a registered dietitian.
“Depending on your situation, you may only need nutrition therapy — which involves nutrition education and counseling by a registered dietitian,” says Leung. “They will provide guidance on how to eat a balanced diet based on your current eating patterns. Or you may need a combination of nutrition therapy and supplementation.”
Le Mire, too, says those who find themselves with nutrient deficiencies will highly benefit from first talking to their healthcare provider and discussing possible lifestyle changes. “The course of action will be dependent on the root cause of the deficiency,” she says. “For example, someone with a certain chronic health care condition may have to supplement their diet in a different way than someone without such a condition.”
Consuming a well-balanced diet is key. “It provides us with adequate nutrition, which is vital to our health and well-being,” says Leung. “A well-balanced diet includes all the essential food groups (i.e., grains, protein, fruits, and vegetables). As a result, our risk of developing certain health conditions — like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes — is also reduced.” She adds that, according to a recent research review on global vegetable intake, 88% of the countries included did not meet the recommended vegetable intake requirement. You can increase your fruit and vegetable intake in many ways, she says, including using a service such as Lettuce Grow Farmstand, wherein you can grow fresh produce right at home.
Bannan agrees that having a balanced and diverse eating pattern can provide a range of nutrients. “However, at times, it can be difficult to meet all your daily requirements,” she says. “Because of this, I often suggest taking a multivitamin.” Blatner, too, says sometimes supplements may be necessary — but to speak to your healthcare provider first. “If you aren’t getting enough fiber through food, for instance, consider a fiber supplement, like Inulin, which also acts like a prebiotic, feeding the good bacteria in the gut,” she says.
Bannan adds that if you want a general idea of your current nutrient intake, you can track your meals and snacks in an app like Cronometer or a FitBit for a more complete picture. “This data can be helpful to take to a registered dietitian to determine if there is a deficiency and the best supplements to take.”
So if you’re not currently getting enough nutrients in your diet, there is hope — you can always change your eating patterns. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll need to eliminate the Thin Mints altogether, but you’ll probably want to opt for apple slices or carrot sticks more often instead. “Everything in moderation,” says Le Mire. Fair enough.