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dietary deficiency

Defining a Dietary Deficiency

It is no secret that food is necessary for life. Eating a balanced diet provides all the nutrients needed for individual cells to function optimally and for tissues to grow. However, we’re often oblivious to how these nutrients act in the body. Provided we take them in the required amounts, all we will see and feel is an overall sense of wellbeing.

On the other hand, all of that changes when we do not get the required nutrients in the necessary amount. In such a case, what is known as a deficiency state arises and often presents with severe consequences. There are as many deficiency states as there are nutrients in the body. Here, we’ll look at deficiencies in-depth and examine their causes and solutions. Do keep reading. 

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What are Dietary Deficiencies?

The body needs several nutrients, divided into five broad groups – carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. All of these groups have pivotal roles in body functioning. When the body receives a nutrient in less quantity than is required for optimal functioning, there is a dietary deficiency.

The amount of each nutrient that a person requires depends on several factors, including age, gender, level of physical activity, presence of disease, etc. When a person receives the daily recommended amount of nutrients based on these factors, the body utilizes the nutrients for various cellular functions. However, if the body is unable to receive this recommended amount, then a deficiency state builds up. Based on how poor a person’s nutrient intake is, they could be said to have a mild, moderate or severe deficiency.

Dietary deficiencies do not occur suddenly. Repeated inadequate intake of necessary nutrients over time eventually results in a deficiency state. It could take weeks to months before the manifestation of this poor dietary state is observed. A 1960s experiment revealed the stages of dietary deficiency. These stages include;

  • Dietary adequacy: when the body is in a state of balance, receiving as much of a nutrient as it uses up
  • Negative balance: this is the early stage of deficiency, where the body is using up more of a nutrient than it receives
  • A decline in tissue stores: continuous negative balance will result in the body breaking down tissue stores of the nutrient to maintain function
  • Loss of function: At this stage, the symptoms and signs of deficiency manifest and can progress to organ failure.
  • Death: without remedy, organ failure will eventually lead to death.


crohns disease malnutrition

Causes of Dietary Deficiency

Generally, dietary deficiencies are caused by inadequate intake of a particular nutrient. However, they could occur due to several other conditions.

  • Inadequate nutrient intake: This is especially common among low-income people. When people cannot afford nutrient-rich food, they eventually develop a dietary deficiency. People in this category often lack all the essential nutrients, especially proteins, vitamins and minerals. On the other hand, people who can afford proper food may often rely on processed foods that may lack certain nutrients. In such cases, such people often have vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
  • Poor nutrient absorption: In some cases, due to a disease state, a person cannot absorb certain nutrients from the intestine despite receiving adequate amounts of the nutrient from food. For example, people with Crohn’s disease have malabsorption syndrome, making it difficult to properly absorb micronutrients like vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, folic acid etc.
  • Excessive Loss: This is also associated with disease states. Renal injury, uncontrolled diabetes, or certain medications can result in the body losing certain nutrients via the urine or through other means. If a person cannot match these lost amounts, then a dietary deficiency results.
  • Altered metabolism: Certain drugs, disease states, genetic conditions etc., affect the way the body metabolizes or uses certain nutrients. Increased metabolism of nutrients will eventually lead to a deficiency state.

Signs of deficiency typically present in later stages. Deficiency states can be judged through blood tests that reveal the amount of a nutrient in the blood.


Common Dietary Deficiencies and Associated Diseases

There areas many dietary deficiencies as there are nutrients. However,  not all deficiencies are clinically important. Some nutrients are only required in minute quantities, and other nutrients could perform their functions. On the other hand, some people adapt to deficiency states of certain nutrients. Hence, deficiencies are judged on a population level. What is considered a deficiency in one population may not be in another. Some of the most common dietary deficiencies include;

protein dietary deficiency

Protein – Kwashiokor, Marasmus

Proteins are the building block of enzymes, hormones, muscles and many tissues. They are one of the most important nutrients for healthy living and are present in many plant and animal-based foods.

Protein deficiency is rare in developed countries. However, protein deficiency is pronounced in people with severe malnutrition, and its effects are devastating.

As the body continues to receive less protein than it uses up, it goes into a state of negative protein balance, eventually using up protein stores in the muscles. Protein deficiency affects all aspects of body functioning. Common signs and symptoms of protein deficiency include;

Mild Deficiency

  • Increased appetite, particularly for protein-rich foods
  • Weakness and fatigue

Moderate Deficiency

  • Muscle wasting or atrophy (loss of muscle mass)
  • Dry, flaky skin; thinning hair; and brittle nails
  • Mood changes

Severe Deficiency. Severe protein deficiency results in the diseases kwashiorkor and marasmus. Common symptoms associated with it include;

  • Edema
  • Stomach bloating
  • Osteoporosis
  • Weak skin that easily splits open
  • Stunted growth
  • Liver failure
  • Muscle wasting (loss of muscle mass)
  • Reduced immunity

Besides malnourished persons, protein deficiency is more likely to affect vegans, older people and people with irritable bowel syndrome.

Omega 3 Deficiency

Fatty Acids

There are different classes of fatty acids – saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. When discussing fatty acid deficiencies, major concerns are the polyunsaturated fatty acids that the body cannot self-produce, particularly omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids and are crucial for brain development and heart health. Unfortunately, the body can’t produce omega-3 fatty acids; hence, humans must obtain it from food, most commonly seafood.

Omega-3 deficiency commonly occurs from inadequate intake of foods rich in this nutrient, especially through consumption of a Western-based diet. The common symptoms of this deficiency include;

  • Fatigue
  • Poor memory
  • Dry skin
  • Poor circulation and increased risk of cardiovascular problems.
  • Mood swings and depression
dietary deficiency of Iron

Iron – Anaemia

Iron is an essential mineral. It is a crucial component of red blood cells, responsible for binding oxygen and transporting it throughout the body.

Iron deficiency affects a quarter of the world’s population. It is more common in pre-school children, menstruating women, pregnant women and vegetarians. Inadequate intake of iron-rich foods, particularly animal-based foods rich in heme iron, is a major cause of iron deficiency. Conversely, blood loss results in iron deficiency.

Iron deficiency results in iron deficiency anemia which affects the capacity of red blood cells to transport iron properly. Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include;

  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Weakened immune system
  • Impaired brain function
  • Pale skin
  • Shortness of breath and chest tightness
  • Tongue inflammation
Iodine Dietary Deficiency

Iodine – Goiter

Iodine is an essential mineral crucial for thyroid function and the production of thyroid hormones T3 and T4. These thyroid hormones are important in several body functions, including; metabolic regulation, bone growth and brain development.

Iodine deficiency occurs due to limited intake of iodine-rich foods and affects nearly a third of the world’s population. Iodine deficiency is associated with serious consequences. Common symptoms of iodine deficiency include;

  • Goiter – enlarged thyroid gland
  • Increased heart rate and shortness of breath
  • Slowed metabolism
  • Mental retardation
  • Abnormal development


Vitamin b12 Dietary Deficiency

Vitamin B12 – Megaloblastic Anemia

Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin essential for blood formation and nerve function. However, the body cannot produce B12by itself; hence we must get it from dietary sources.

Vitamin B12 is found in rich quantities in animal-based foods. Hence, many vegetarians often suffer from B12 deficiency. Older age and malabsorption syndromes like Crohn’s disease also cause B12 deficiency. Symptoms associated with vitamin B12 deficiency include;

  • Megaloblastic anemia: enlarged red blood cells
  • Impaired brain function
  • Elevated homocysteine levels increase the risk of health diseases, stroke and brain diseases.

Other notable dietary deficiencies include;

  1. Vitamin D
  2. Calcium
  3. Vitamin A
  4. Magnesium
  5. Vitamin B6 and Folic acid
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Treating Dietary Deficeniecies

The first step in treating a dietary deficiency is to establish the severity. We can accomplish this through blood tests that measure the circulating amount of the nutrient. Next, we must determine the underlying cause of the deficiency.

Dietary deficiencies are mostly caused by reduced intake of nutrient-rich foods. Thus, the primary treatment strategy is to provide adequate amounts of foods rich in the deficient nutrient. The amount given to the person will depend on the severity of the deficiency and other factors like age, sex and level of physical activity.

Suppose the deficiency state is caused by disease conditions or the use of certain drugs. In that case, the treatment will focus on curing the condition or eliminating the causative drug. In malabsorption syndromes, the deficient nutrient may be administered via IV fluids to bypass the gastrointestinal absorption.

Deficiencies may also be treated using supplements. In many developed countries, dietary supplements are pivotal in reducing the burden of deficiencies. However, many developing countries still suffer from a high burden of dietary deficiencies.

Supplementation of Diet Deficiency Nutrients


Supplements have become very popular globally. One survey reported that over 77% of Americans relied on dietary supplements. These supplements provide nutrients that we may not obtain from a regular diet.

Some studies have demonstrated the benefits of supplements in maintaining overall health by reducing the burden of dietary deficiencies. However, supplements do not replace the need for a balanced diet.

Some of the most common supplements include;

Before taking any supplement, it is important to discuss with a physician to establish your needs. Supplements should not be taken in excessive quantities. The body can absorb only so much while the excess is excreted. In addition, too much of certain supplements will result in side effects and may be toxic to the body. Hence, while supplements are important, you should endeavor to take them in moderate amounts as recommended by a licensed physician.

dietary deficiency and muscle building

Dietary Deficiencies and Muscle Building

The nutrients obtained through diet are essential for several body functions. Every nutrient plays a vital role in one aspect of bodybuilding. For example, proteins are essential for muscle growth; iron is essential for oxygen transport; calcium is essential for bone development to support muscles. Thus, a deficiency of any one of these nutrients will cause problems with bodybuilding.

Without nutrients, athletes will lack energy, mental alertness, strength and stamina and will not gain muscle mass as rapidly as they should. Besides, deficiencies of certain nutrients delay post-workout recovery and affect other systemic functions like the circulatory and cardiovascular systems required to maintain workout efficiency. Therefore, maintaining proper amounts of nutrients through consuming balanced diets and using supplements is essential for efficient bodybuilding.

Take Away

Dietary deficiencies occur when you do not get enough nutrients through your diet. It can be mild, moderate or severe, with severe forms often life-threatening. Deficiencies affect several body functions and result in inefficiency in bodybuilding. Deficiencies may be treated by improving dietary intake of the deficient nutrient or using supplements. Ensure to speak with a doctor before using any supplement to establish your need and how much of the supplement you require.


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