How to tell which vitamins and minerals you need more of
We guzzle those kale smoothies with pride (it's the effort that counts). We conquer dinner with the most colorful of plates (sometimes). And we nobly swallow our daily multivitamin "just in case." Why? So, we can be confident that our vitamin and mineral needs are met.
But, it's not easy. No matter how much broccoli we eat and no matter how elaborate the Apple Health app is, we can't just plug ourselves in and receive an hourly report like:
Hi, Gorgeous. Here are your current vitamin levels. Now have a beautiful, sunshine-y day.
So how do you tell if your diet is complete?
First, you can find comfort in this: "The days of gross life-threatening vitamin deficiencies in America are behind us," Dr. Robert Huizenga, or "Dr. H," a health expert for The Biggest Loser, author and professor at University of California, Los Angeles, tells us. "I have never seen a case of scurvy, beriberi, pellagra or rickets — but flagrant cases continue to occur in those with intestinal diseases and those who eat extremely limited, repetitious 'tea and toast'-like diets."
He notes that, if anything, mineral deficiencies are more common than vitamin deficiencies, and the best way to know is by taking a holistic look at your diet. "Living in this country," Dr. H explains, "if you eat the 'rainbow' of colors of fruits and vegetables (don't forget white!), whole wheat grains, healthy fats (like tree nuts, avocado, whole eggs), lean protein (fish, shellfish, non-fat dairy) and if you have normal digestive function, the chance you have any nutrient deficiency is essentially zero."
How vitamins and minerals work
Dr. Lynn Anderson — a naturopathic doctor, author and yoga instructor — explains how vitamins and minerals actually work: "We need enzymes to be activated so that we can do all of our bodily functions. Enzymes are activated by vitamins and minerals."
She explains that certain enzymes need certain vitamins for activation. For example, "A particular enzyme needs vitamin B6 to activate it. We need this enzyme activated so that it can send nerve impulses to our fingertips. If there is a deficiency in vitamin B6, you might feel tingling in your fingertips."
Signs of deficiency
But what if you are a tea-and-toast kinda girl (slowly raises hand)? Sometimes, we get stuck in an eating routine because we're used to it, it's easy, we love it or all of the above. And, if this is the case, we may lack certain nutrients more than others. In all of the vitamins and minerals listed below, Dr. H explains that trace deficiencies of any of them will show no symptoms. But, if you start seeing any of the following signs, I'd say head to your doctor to get the real scoop on what's going on.
- Vitamin A: Visual defects — beginning with night blindness — and lowered immune function
- Vitamin C: Scurvy with lethargy, muscle aches, easy bruising and bleeding gums
- Vitamin D: Can cause rickets early in life (bowing of leg bones) and can cause weaker, more fracture-prone bones later in life (osteoporosis)
- Vitamin E: Anemia and nerve cell damage
- Potassium: Muscle cramps, weakness and cardiac arrhythmia
- Iron: Anemia and hair loss
- Calcium: Malaise, twitches and arrhythmia
- Sodium: Weakness, cramps, confusion leading to coma
So, what's the best way to avoid deficiencies?
"Eat a healthy whole food diet," Anderson tells us. She explains that vitamins and minerals work together synergistically, meaning our diets need to include a wide variety of foods. For example, when eating an orange, she says, "Make sure you also eat some of the white flesh. This contains bioflavonoids which help your body absorb the vitamin C from the orange fruit. This is a good example of why we should eat fresh whole fruit with the skins and flesh."
But also... "Don’t forget the importance of exercise," Anderson notes. "Exercise helps the body to build strong bones and improves the circulation and use of nutrients throughout the body. Eating a healthy diet and supplementing with a multivitamin is the best course for getting the vitamins and minerals we need to live a healthy and productive lifestyle. Reduce stress. Use common sense. The body needs the right fuel to operate properly, so fuel it with a healthy diet and you probably won’t need to worry about vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Remember you are what you eat! Your health is your most important asset so fuel it with a healthy life!"