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Top Micronutrient Deficiencies

Article at-a-glance:

  • Refined grains, added sugar and starchy vegetables, account for 42% of the average American’s calories, while whole grains and fruit make up just 9%. 
  • This creates micronutrient deficiencies, which damage mitochondria, create breaks in DNA and cause depression, fatigue, muscle cramps, hair loss, osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and more.
  • But you can prevent and reverse the trend through diet and healthy supplementation.

by Dr. John Neustadt

Micronutrient deficiencies happen when you don’t consume enough vitamins, minerals and other plant nutrients. There are 40 essential minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients that you can only get from diet or dietary supplements.1 Despite needing only small amounts of each micronutrient, most Americans still aren’t consuming enough to reach the recommended daily doses. As a result, most Americans are at risk for micronutrient-deficiencies diets and their dangerous consequences.

For example, Bruce Ames, PhD at UC Berkeley showed that deficiencies in micronutrients such as selenium, zinc and copper create breaks in DNA and let free radicals go unchecked.2 He noted that these DNA strand breaks were similar to what’s observed when someone is exposed to radiation, which can lead to cancer and other chronic illness. 

Processed foods

The average American diet today is full of processed foods. Love eating pastries in the morning, hosting pizza night and ordering take out over white rice? You’re not alone. A 2019 study published in the journal JAMA found that low quality carbohydrates, which include refined grains, added sugar and starchy vegetables, account for 42% of the average American’s calories, while whole grains and fruit make up just 9%.Essentially, people who eat this way are full, malnourished and starving their bodies of what they’re lacking most—micronutrients. 

Processed foods are almost completely stripped of their nutrients. Refining flour removes more than 80% of B vitamins, 85% of magnesium and 60% of the calcium from what was in the whole wheat.4 And while produce is one of the best sources of micronutrients, even the fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S. today are lower in vitamins and minerals than in the past.

Modern farming

In 1999, studies showed that vegetables grown in the US had significantly smaller amounts of six important nutrients than vegetables grown in 1950. This is because industrialized farming operations favor high out-put crops over nutrient-dense yields.5 This tradeoff creates a food system that is calorie-rich but nutrient-poor, and Americans are suffering the consequences. 

The most common deficiencies

Here are some startling facts according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements:

  • the most common nutrient deficiencies are vitamin B6, iron (in women ages 12 to 49), and vitamin D.6
  • Nearly 74% of the US population does not meet the daily requirement for vitamin D.
  • 31% of Americans aren’t getting enough vitamin C
  • 52% consume less than the average requirement of magnesium.7 
  • Most Americans–about 66%–aren’t getting enough vitamin E.8,9

Health impact

If the body doesn’t get enough nutrients, its healthy biochemsitry and phsyiology are disrupted. Take magnesium, for example. The body uses magnesium in more than 300 biochemical reactions. Magnesium acts as to support healthy inflammation balance and is necessary for normal nerve and muscle function. It keeps the immune system healthy and the heartbeat steadfast, and helps regulate blood sugar. The body also needs magnesium for energy and protein production and to create and repair both DNA and RNA. When your body doesn’t have enough magnesium, things go awry. 

Researches have linked low levels of magnesium to a number of chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, migraine headaches and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).10 A 2015 study estimated that as much as 60% of chronically ill patients were magnesium deficient.11 Additional symptoms of low magnesium can include depression, fatigue, headaches, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and muscle cramps.12

Cellular stress and damage

Your body requires around 40 micronutrients to function harmoniously. A deficiency of any of these vitamins or minerals puts stress on the body. Deficiencies in eight in particular–– folic acid, Vitamin B12, Vitamin B6, niacin, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, iron, or zinc––have a radiation-like effect on DNA, causing breaks or lesions in strands of DNA, increase free radical damage and speed up cellular aging. Dr. Bruce Ames, PhD, proved that this type of damage makes cells age faster and puts people at a higher risk for cancer and other chronic illnesses.13


Iron is used for more than 100 biochemical processes. This includes maintaining healthy energy, mood, hair and lungs. Iron deficiency can cause more than a dozen symptoms.14 For example, iron deficiency breaks DNA and causes brain and immune dysfunction. Another 2015 study found that people with long term iron deficiency anemia were much more likely to develop cancer.15 The CDC lists iron as the second most common nutrient missing from the American diet, after vitamin B6, but it’s easy to work iron-rich foods into your meals and take an iron supplement.16 Red meat and seafood are good sources of highly bioavailable iron, the kind the body can most easily absorb. Oysters and white beans both pack 8 mg of iron per serving and dark chocolate has about 7 mg, while lentils, spinach and tofu all contain 3 mg of iron per serving.17 


People are also commonly deficient in the micronutrient zinc. A zinc deficiency breaks down chromosomes and presents a lot of the same issues as an iron deficiency. The damage causes neuro-sensory disorders, severe immune dysfunction and cancer. Zinc is also an antioxidant and works as an anti-inflammatory, meaning its presence makes cells age more slowly.18 Eating oysters aren’t just good for iron, the bivalves are also packed with zinc. Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food, though beans and nuts are also good sources of the mineral and may be easier to work into your diet.19 


Selenium, another micronutrient, helps enzymes fight off free radicals. Dr. Ames found that selenium deficiency causes DNA oxidation, which leads to neurological issues, memory loss and prostate cancer. The good news is that it’s actually quite easy to get selenium from foods sold in the US. How much selenium a food contains is largely based on the soil in which it’s grown. Since most Americans eat food that is grown all over the country, the vast majority are bound to eat at least some food that comes from selenium-rich areas.20 Protein-rich foods including nuts, seafood, and meat are usually the best sources of the mineral, but you can also get it through sea salt, eggs, yeast, bread, mushrooms, giblets, garlic, asparagus, and kohlrabi.21 


The body uses magnesium in mitochondrial metabolism. And as noted in the section above, magnesium deficiency can cause a slew of chronic illnesses including kidney failure.22 A single ounce of almonds and a half-cup of spinach both provide 20% of your daily value of magnesium, while cashews aren’t far behind, at 19%. Black beans, edamame, peanut butter, brown rice and avocados are also good sources of magnesium.23 

Free radical damage

Your body relies on a balance between free radicals and antioxidants to properly do its job. When the two are out of balance, there are not enough antioxidants to keep free radicals in check, leaving them to damage DNA, fatty tissue and proteins. This creates oxidative stress. Researcher have linked this type of DNA damage to low levels of antioxidants and a higher number of DNA lesions that cannot be repaired. An overabundance of free radicals also triggers the aging process in cells. Ultimately, the damage they cause shortens your life by accelerating aging and launching disease. Oxidative stress has been linked to cancer, diabetes, hardening of the blood vessels, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.24

Nutrients that decrease oxidative stress

However, you can prevent oxidative stress. The antioxidants found in whole foods, especially produce, protect your DNA from oxidative stress. Although which foods you eat on a regular basis has the largest impact on your health, you can also supplement nutrient-dense foods with dietary supplements, especially those that contain selenium, vitamin C and vitamin E.

Selenium and vitamins C and E are particularly important in combating oxidative stress. Vitamin E, for example, stimulates the immune system and prevents cancer cells from forming. It also protects the body’s saturated fatty acids from oxidation and plays a role in repairing DNA, protecting it from genetic mutations. Vitamin C accelerates the detoxification of liver enzymes and like vitamin E, prevents cancer cells from forming by blocking carcinogenic compounds in the body.25 

Selenium is present in 25 different proteins in the body, the reason it’s associated with so many physiological processes.26 A 2016 metanalysis of 69 studies that included more than 360,000 participants found that people who had higher blood levels of selenium were less likely to develop breast, lung, colon and prostate cancers.28 

How to get enough micronutrients

Eating whole foods, which are rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients is the best way to combat micronutrient deficiencies, including selenium and vitamins E and C. 

More than six decades of research backs the Mediterranean Dietary pattern’s ability to reduce the risk of obesity and a range of chronic illnesses including diabetes, cancer, death from cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer disease. As the name suggests, the dietary lifestyle is not a temporary diet, but the way you should eat long term. It emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans, lean proteins such as fish and chicken and a generous amount of olive oil. On the other hand, red meat, sweets and wine should only be consumed occasionally. 

Make sure your diet is full of fiber-rich whole fruits and vegetables, which make you feel full longer, regulate blood sugar and promote healthy gut bacteria. These foods also prevent heart attack and stroke. A study conducted at the Cleveland Clinic found that a plant diet was able not only to prevent, but reverse cardiovascular disease.28 

Fresh juice, like celery juice, and smoothies are packe with micronutrients. Adding them into your weekly routine can also help ensure you’re getting enough. Supplemetning with a mutliple vitamin and mineral formula is another way to feed your body healthy micronutrients. 

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1Ames, Bruce N. Low micronutrient intake may accelerate the degenerative diseases of aging through allocation of scarce micronutrients by triage. PNAS 2006;103(47)17589 –17594. [Article]

2Ames BN. DNA damage from micronutrient deficiencies is likely to be a major cause of cancer. Mutation research. 2001;475(1-2):7-20. [Article]

3Shan Z, Rehm CD, Rogers G, et al. Trends in Dietary Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat Intake and Diet Quality Among US Adults, 1999-2016. JAMA. 2019;322(12):1178–1187. [Article]

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5Davis, Donald R. and Melvin D Epp, Hugh D Riordan. Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999. J Am Coll Nutr, 23 (6), 669-82. Dec 2004. [Article]

6Christine M. Pfeiffer, Maya R. Sternberg, Rosemary L. Schleicher, Bridgette M.H. Haynes, Michael E. Rybak, and James L. Pirkle. CDC’s Second National Report on Biochemical Indicators of Diet and Nutrition in the US Population is a valuable tool for researchers and policy makers. National Center for Environmental Health. J Nutr. 2013 June ; 143(6): 938S–947S. [Article]

7Wallace TC, McBurney M, Fulgoni VL, 3rd. Multivitamin/mineral supplement contribution to micronutrient intakes in the United States, 2007-2010. J Am Coll Nutr. 2014;33(2):94-102. [Article]

8National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin E Fact Sheet for Professionals. 2019 July 10. [Web Page]

9National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin E Fact Sheet for Consumers. 2019 July 12. [Web Page]

10de Baaij, Jeroen H. F. and Joost G. J. Hoenderop, and René J. M. Bindels. Magnesium in Man: Implications for Health and Disease.Physiol Rev 95: 1–46, 2015. [Article]

11Gröber , Uwe and Joachim Schmidt and Klaus Kisters. Magnesium in Prevention and Therapy. Nutrients 2015, 7, 8199-8226. [Article]

12Magnesium in the Central Nervous System. In: Vink R, Nechifor M, eds. Adelaide (AU): University of Adelaide Press; 2011. Accessed February 26, 2019. [Book]

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14Institute of Medicine (U.S.). Panel on Macronutrients., Institute of Medicine (U.S.). Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silion, Vanadium and Zinc. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press;2001. [Book]

15Hung N, Shen C-C, Hu Y-W, Hu L-Y, Yeh C-M, Teng C-J, et al. (2015) Risk of Cancer in Patients with Iron Deficiency Anemia: A Nationwide Population-Based Study. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0119647. [Article]

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18Prasad AS. Clinical, immunological, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant roles of zinc. Exp Gerontol 2008; 43: 370–7. [Article]

19National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Zinc Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. 2019 July 10. [Web page]

20National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Selenium Fact Sheet for Consumers. 2019 December 10. [Web Page]

21Kieliszek, Marek. Selenium–Fascinating Microelement, Properties and Sources in Food. Molecules. 2019 Apr; 24(7): 1298. [Article]

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23National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Magnesium Fact Sheet for Professionals. 2019 October 11. [Web Page]

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