How to overcome common nutrient deficiencies
Canadians are not getting enough vitamins and minerals in their diet.1 Although the problems with overeating are commonly discussed by healthcare professionals and in the media, Canadians are still struggling to meet their daily requirements of basic nutrients and there are many possible reasons for this.
Vitamins and minerals are found in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, unprocessed meats, and whole grains. However, the consumption of these foods has declined significantly over the last 11 years.2 The typical Western Diet consists of highly processed meats, refined carbohydrates, sugars, saturated fats and inflammatory oils and at the same time, this diet is low in fruit, vegetables and fibre.3
In order to meet the fundamental nutritional needs, Health Canada recommends 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.4 According to Statistics Canada, only about 39% of Canadians are hitting these numbers.4 To further complicate the issue, the soil in which fruits and vegetables are grown in is now less nutritive than it once was.5 Industrialized farming practices such as monoculture, soil compaction, fertilizers and synthetic pesticides has compromised the health of our soil and has led to a decrease in nutrient availability for growing crops.5 Therefore, even when an individual consumes an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables, they are potentially less healthful than vegetables that were grown in the same soil 50 years ago.
The following nutritional deficiencies or inadequacies are commonly found in Canadians.
Vitamin D is the most common nutrient deficiency in Canada and impacts nearly 1 billion individuals globally6. The lack of sun in the Canadian winter months increases the risk of vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is needed for both strength, to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. It is also important for proper immune function; mood regulation; the reduction of inflammation; diabetes; multiple sclerosis; certain types of cancer, and heart disease.6
Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include fatigue, bone pain, recurrent infections, muscle weakness or aches, depression and mood changes.6 However, many individuals have inadequate vitamin D levels and are unaware.6
Vitamin D is found in egg yolks, beef liver, fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, cod liver oil, mushrooms and in fortified foods (cereals, milks, cheese, and orange juice).6 Due to the lack of sunlight, consumption of whole foods and low blood levels of vitamin D in the population, many individuals may need to supplement with vitamin D in order to obtain sufficient levels- especially in the winter months.
Magnesium is another common nutrition deficiency in Canada. The most current data on Canadian levels was in 2004 when 34% of individuals consumed less than the average requirement.7 Since 2004, soil levels of magnesium have continued to decrease, therefore the estimated percent of Canadians with adequate intake is likely lower than 66%.5
Magnesium is used in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. It is important for proper nerve and muscle function, blood sugar control, maintain a healthy blood pressure, and protein synthesis.8
Signs of magnesium deficiency include: headaches, muscle spasms, high blood pressure, weakness, fatigue, and abnormal heart rhythm. However, these symptoms tend to occur after a chronic period of low magnesium levels.8 Low blood levels of magnesium is also associated with a wide variety of chronic disease such as: Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease and type two diabetes.8
Magnesium can be found in several plant foods such as whole grains, rice, spinach, legumes, bananas, dark chocolate, avocado, and white potatoes.8 The recommended intake of magnesium in a day is between 310–420 mg.8 Due to the reduced levels of magnesium in the soil and in our whole foods, some individuals may need to supplement to meet these requirements.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body, 99% of which is found in the teeth and bones.9 Additionally, calcium plays a role in hormone secretion, muscle contraction and nerve transmission.10
Calcium is regulated by hormones in the body.10 Certain hormones cause bone formation or breakdown, depending on one’s calcium needs. If an individual does not consume enough calcium, the body will break down bone in order to obtain the calcium required for vital processes in your body; this creates weaker bones.
Therefore, the signs of possible calcium deficiency are a loss of bone mass and fractures, as well as brittle nails, muscle spasms, and fragile skin.10 Just as was mentioned with vitamin D and magnesium, the symptoms of calcium deficiency may not be evident until months or years later.
Foods that are rich in calcium include- salmon, sardines, baked beans, almonds, spinach, fortified milks and tofu.10 Calcium supplementation may be needed depending on age and diet, however it is important to discuss with a healthcare practitioner as calcium supplementation can increase cardiovascular risk if not needed.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency is an interesting topic because the consumption of this essential nutrient has actually increased over the years. However, due to the much larger increase in omega-6 fatty acid intakes at the same time, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the body is grossly unbalanced.
The Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio during evolution was approximately 1:1. However, Western diets contain excess omega-6 fatty acids, which has brought the ratio closer to 20:1.11 Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are needed in the diet but there is one important distinction between the two types. Omega-6 fatty acids are highly inflammatory, while omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory.11 Therefore, an imbalance of omega-6 to omega-3 can lead to excessive inflammation in the body, which is involved in nearly every chronic disease.11
To re-balance the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, individuals must both increase omega-3 fatty acid intake while decreasing omega-6 fatty acid intake. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in processed foods, corn, safflower and sunflower oils, nuts and seeds.11 Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines as well as in seaweed and some enriched foods such as eggs.11 In individuals suffering from inflammatory conditions, an omega-3 fatty acid supplement may be given to help restore the balance between the two types of fatty acids.
To ensure you are receiving the correct amount of nutrients from your diet, eat minimally processed, whole foods which include 5-10 servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Your individual nutritional needs may vary; therefore, it is important to check in with a healthcare practitioner to find out what works best for you.
- Health Canada. Do Canadian adults meet their nutrient requirements through food intake alone? 2012 March.
- Tugault-Lafleur CN, Black JL. Differences in the quantity and types of foods and beverages consumed by Canadians between 2004 and 2015. Nutrients. 2019 Mar;11(3):526.
- Statovci D, Aguilera M, MacSharry J, Melgar S. The impact of western diet and nutrients on the microbiota and immune response at mucosal interfaces. Frontiers in immunology. 2017 Jul 28;8:838.
- Statistics Canada. Fruit and vegetable consumption. 2014. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-625-x/2015001/article/14182-eng.htm
- Nadia Lamanna, ND Jenna Mangan CNP. ND Notes. Magnesium and Me. Fall 2007. Vol 3 No 2.
- Pfotenhauer KM, Shubrook JH. Vitamin D deficiency, its role in health and disease, and current supplementation recommendations. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2017 May 1;117(5):301-5
- Volpe SL. Magnesium in disease prevention and overall health. Advances in nutrition. 2013 May;4(3):378S-83S.
- Cashman KD. Calcium intake, calcium bioavailability and bone health. British journal of Nutrition. 2002 May;87(S2):S169-77.
- National Institue of Health. Calcium. Fact Sheet for Professionals. 2020 March.
- Simopoulos AP. An increase in the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio increases the risk for obesity. Nutrients. 2016 Mar;8(3):128.