Common Nutritional Deficiencies in Women

Nutritional deficiencies occur more often than you would think, whether because of diet, lifestyle or medications. Below are some of the essential nutrients most likely to be lacking in Canadian women.

Calcium

Out of all the required minerals, calcium is the most abundant found in the human body. Over 99% of the body’s calcium supply is found in the bones and teeth where it supports their structure.[1] According to Health Canada, the percentage of Canadian women who do not receive the recommended amount of dietary calcium is common, and as we age the percentage rises:

  • 48% of those aged 19-30
  • Over 50% of those aged 31-50
  • Over 80% of those aged 51-70
  • Peaking at 87% of those over aged 71

 

Ensuring an adequate intake of calcium throughout life can help to prevent osteoporosis,[2] a disease caused by low bone mass, which weakens bones and can lead to increased fractures.[3] Two million Canadians are affected by osteoporosis, and at least 1 in 3 women will break a bone due to osteoporosis in their lifetime.⁴ Calcium is not only required for bones, but is also important for proper nerve transmission, hormonal secretions, helping your muscles work, and even helping with the constriction and relaxation of blood vessels, which is important for your heart health.¹

Iron

Iron is a mineral that plays many different roles within the body, making it extremely important to your health. In particular, it helps produce red blood cells and works to transport oxygen throughout the human body.[4] According to Statistics Canada, “Iron deficiency is one of the largest nutritional public health problems in both developing and industrialized countries, (and)…females of childbearing age are at the highest risk of having low levels of iron.”[5]

Iron naturally occurs in a number of different foods, which may make you think consuming your regular diet is easily providing you with enough iron. However, what you may not know is that there are two different types of iron; Heme Iron (found in animal foods such as red meat, chicken and seafood) and Non-Heme Iron (found in plant-based foods such as beans, dried fruits and some vegetables like asparagus and spinach). Heme iron is much more easily absorbed than non-heme iron.[6] For those following a vegetarian diet, the recommended dietary requirements of iron can be 1.8 times higher than for non-vegetarians.[7]

Although following a plant-based diet can make someone more prone to iron deficiency, the most common cause of iron deficiency is actually menstruation. For those women who have a lengthy or heavy period, the chances of iron deficiency increase. Fatigue, hair loss, and restless legs are some of the common symptoms that occur from a lack of iron.[8]  Low levels of iron are not just a concern for women when menstruating. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency during pregnancy, and can lead to: premature delivery, low birth weight, and an increased risk of infant mortality.[9]  

*Please note that many prenatal vitamins include iron; if you are pregnant, ensure dosages are verified by a doctor or registered midwife before taking an additional iron supplement.

Magnesium

According to Statistics Canada, more than 34% of Canadian women up to age 70, consumed magnesium in quantities below the Health Canada estimated average requirements. In women over the age of 70, the prevalence of inadequate intakes rose to over 50%.[10] Those who eat a primarily processed diet heavy in meat and processed carbohydrates may have a lowered intake of required magnesium levels, as the best food sources of magnesium are: legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, leafy greens and whole grains.[11]

Magnesium is an important mineral that the human body requires to be healthy. It helps keep muscles, bones and nerves healthy. It also helps to keep the heart healthy by moving potassium and calcium across cell membranes, affecting muscle contractions and normal heart rhythm.[12] According to the Public Health Agency of Canada heart disease is the number one cause of death in Canada for women over the age of 55.”[13] Being that both calcium and magnesium are required for a healthy heart, and deficiencies in both these nutrients increase as we age, paying attention to diet as well as supplementing are important preventative steps.

Do You Take Oral Birth Control?

Research has shown that lower levels of magnesium as well as vitamin B12, vitamin C, and vitamin E occur in women on oral birth control medications. The lowered levels of vitamin C and E have caused concerns over the effects of oral contraceptives on antioxidant balance, particularly because the risk for cardiovascular disease may increase. The lowered levels in magnesium may affect the calcium magnesium ratio in the body which influences blood clotting; a major side effect of oral birth control.[14] Talking to your doctor about the best type and dosage of birth control for your individual case is important as well as supplementing with a women’s multivitamin to ensure healthy levels of vitamin B12, C and E as well as magnesium.

[1] Health Canada. Vitamin D and Calcium: Updated Dietary Reference Intakes.  Accessed April 17, 2020 at: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/healthy-eating/vitamins-minerals/vitamin-calcium-updated-dietary-reference-intakes-nutrition.html#a6

[2] Osteoporosis Canada. Nutrition. Accessed April 20, 2020 at: https://osteoporosis.ca/bone-health-osteoporosis/nutrition/

[3] Osteoporosis Canada. About the Disease. Accessed April 20, 2020 at: http://osteoporosis.ca/about-the-disease/

[4] Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Centre. Iron. Accessed April 21, 2020 at: https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/iron

[5] Statistics Canada. Iron sufficiency of Canadians, 2009 to 2011. Accessed April 14, 2020 at: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-625-x/2012001/article/11734-eng.htm

[6] Health Canada. Iron. Accessed April 16, 2020 at: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/nutrients/iron.html

[7] Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Centre. Iron. Accessed April 21, 2020 at: https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/iron

[8] DeLoughery DG. (2017). Iron Deficiency Anemia. Med Clin North Am. Mar;101(2):319-332.

[9] Health Canada. Prenatal Nutrition Guidelines for Health Professionals – Iron Contributes to a Healthy Pregnancy. Accessed April 14, 2020 at: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/reports-publications/nutrition-healthy-eating/prenatal-nutrition-guidelines-health-professionals-iron-contributes-healthy-pregnancy-2009.html

[10] Health Canada. Do Canadian Adults Meet Their Nutrient Requirements through Food Intake Alone? Accessed April 19, 2020 at: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/food-nutrition-surveillance/health-nutrition-surveys/canadian-community-health-survey-cchs/canadian-adults-meet-their-nutrient-requirements-through-food-intake-alone-health-canada-2012.html#a33

[11] Dietitians of Canada. What You Need To Know About Magnesium. Accessed April 19, 2020 at: http://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vitamins-and-Minerals/What-you-need-to-know-about-Magnesium.aspx

[12] Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center. Magnesium. Accessed April 19, 2020 at: https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/magnesium#ion-transport

[13] Public Health Agency of Canada. Are Women at Risk for Heart Disease? Accessed April,20 2020 at: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/chronic-diseases/cardiovascular-disease/women-risk-heart-disease.html

[14] Mohn ES et al. (2018). Evidence of Drug-Nutrient Interactions with Chronic Use of Commonly Prescribed Medications: An Update. Pharmaceutics. Mar 20;10(1). Pii:E36.