Nutrients – we know we need them in balanced ratios. Nutrients fall into two main categories: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are the components of food that supply your body with energy. They include carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Although protein is secondary as an energy source you need the amino acids from protein to build and maintain muscle tissue and for other purposes as well.
Micronutrients are components that don’t supply energy but take part in a variety of chemical reactions. They include vitamins and minerals. Some micronutrients you need in relatively large amounts, like sodium. You need sodium to maintain the proper fluid balance. Others, like selenium, you need only in tiny quantities.
For health, we need a proper balance of nutrients and micronutrients and nutrient deficiencies are more common than you think. A report put out by the CDC suggests that nutrient deficiencies may affect as much as one-third of some populations in Western countries. Even if you eat enough calories, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not nutrient deficient. Here are some surprising factors that increase the risk of having one or more nutritional deficiencies.
Nutritional deficiencies are more common at the extremes of aging. When you’re a child, your nutritional requirements are higher because you’re growing and developing. Eating a processed food diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies as some lack essential nutrients. But the risk goes up as you approach the twilight years too. After the age of 65, we become less efficient at extracting nutrients from food.
As we age, we also produce less stomach acid. Less stomach acid makes it harder to absorb some key micronutrients, including iron, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B12. That’s why it’s important to eat a whole food, nutrient-rich diet at all stages of life, including old age. It’s also a good idea to check your vitamin B12 level after the age of 65. Up to 20% of seniors have a deficiency in vitamin B12. Vitamin D deficiency is also more common, partially due to decreased sun exposure and partly due to reduced ability to make vitamin D in response to sun exposure.
Gut bacteria play a key role in the absorption of micronutrients. Some medications, particularly antibiotics, disrupt the gut microbiome and this can make it harder to absorb some micronutrients. In addition, studies show antibiotics can interfere with the absorption of macronutrients too, including protein and carbohydrates.
Another class of drugs that reduce the absorption of micronutrients are acid-blocking medications. The worst is a class called proton-pump inhibitors used to treat stomach ulcers and acid reflux. You need an acidic stomach environment to optimally absorb calcium magnesium and iron. Acid-blocking medications reduce stomach acidity and thereby reduce the absorption of these minerals. But vitamin B12 absorption is impacted by these medications too. The risk of vitamin B12 deficiency is highest if you take these drugs for two years or longer.
Overdoing the Alcohol
Drinking alcohol most days of the week can lead to nutritional deficiencies, particularly B-complex vitamins. Other than B-vitamins, heavy alcohol users can have a wide range of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, including vitamins A, C, D, E, K and calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium. One reason is people who drink lots of alcohol often don’t consume as much food and alcohol has no nutritional value. Alcohol can also interfere with the digestion and utilization of micronutrients from food.
Smoking doesn’t affect nutrient absorption from the digestive tract, but studies show it’s linked with lower levels of micronutrients, including vitamin E, vitamin C, and selenium. Plus, smokers are less likely to eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables to offset these deficiencies. In fact, studies show that smokers need 35 milligrams more vitamin C daily than non-smokers. Best to kick the habit!
Drinking Caffeinated Beverages with Meals
Caffeinated beverages reduce the absorption of minerals from food when you drink it with a meal. This is partially due to the tannins in coffee and tea. Tannins are plant-based compounds that bind to minerals, including calcium, iron, and magnesium and keep them from being absorbed. One study found that drinking a cup of coffee with a hamburger reduced the absorption of iron from the meal by 39%. You can avoid this by not drinking coffee or tea with meals or drinking them before meals. Drinking either an hour before a meal doesn’t interfere with iron absorption.
Stress can affect nutrient intake by changing how hungry you feel. Some people eat more when they’re stressed out while others lose their appetite and consume less food. Studies show that which happens depends on the individual. Some of us react differently to stress than others. It also depends on the duration of the stress and how severe it is. For example, short-term, mild stress like having to give a public speech might cause an increase in appetite while long-term stress of a more severe nature will more likely decrease it. But stress alters the movement of food through the intestinal tract and can negatively affect the secretion of stomach acid. This can interfere with nutrient absorption. In addition, long-term stress may disrupt the gut microbiome. We know that the composition of the gut microbiome, the bacteria that live in your intestines, play a key role in nutrient absorption.
The take-home message? We all need ways to manage stress. Regular exercise helps with stress management, as does mind-body training such as yoga or meditation. Find what works for you, but make sure you’re managing your stress level.
The Bottom Line
Now you know how lifestyle habits can lead to nutritional deficiencies. It’s not how you much eat, but how much you absorb and the number of key nutrients and micronutrients made available to your body. These six factors can make it harder to maintain good nutritional status.
“CDC’s Second Nutrition Report: A comprehensive biochemical assessment of the nutrition status of the U.S. population”
The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 131, Issue 4, 1 April 2001, Pages 1359S–1361S, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/131.4.1359S.
Journal of Emerging Investigators. “The Effects of Antibiotics on Nutrient Digestion” Eva M. Murea1 and Brian D. LaLonde.
Pharmacy Times. “Proton Pump Inhibitors: How to Deprescribe These Nutrient Robbers”
Am J Clin Nutr. 1983 Mar;37(3):416-20.
EXCLI J. 2017; 16: 1057–1072.
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