The benefits of eating a balanced diet

Symptoms of deficiencies may include hair loss, inability to concentrate and sudden weight loss or gain, among others. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Eating a balanced diet significantly impacts not only your physical health but also your mental health and relationship with food. 

Nutritional deficiencies occur when the body does not get enough vitamins and minerals. The most common nutrition deficiencies are those where macro-nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fat or both, which are usually eaten in big amounts) are not being ingested in adequate amounts over long periods of time. 

According to Amanda Twebaze, a nutritionist: “This results in the protein-energy malnutrition cases that are seen among vulnerable groups including children in remote areas where food is usually sold off for money. The elderly are also likely to suffer this as their bodies begin to experience wear and tear, reducing their functionality, especially if accompanied by underlying diseases.”

Other forms of nutrition deficiencies are the micronutrient (nutrients required in small amounts by the body) deficiencies. Our bodies store small amounts of extra vitamins and minerals that would keep us going for weeks. Some of these deficiencies include:

Iron deficiency is the most common deficiency among pregnant mothers, people on vegetarian or stricter vegan diets, infants and toddlers and teenage girls who go through menstruation, among others.  

“The nutrient is essential in making haemoglobin, a protein in the red blood cells, which carries oxygen throughout the body. The deficiency causes headaches, one may feel cold, tired, or run short of breath. Meat and some plant-based sources such as beans, lentils, grains, spinach, and fortified cereals are rich sources of iron,” Twebaze says.

Calcium, a mineral which is essential for keeping bones strong, control muscle and nerve function and regulate heartbeat is another common deficiency according to Ivan Philip Baguma, a dietician at Nella Organics.

“With age, the oestrogen levels drop. This affects our ability to absorb calcium. This deficiency is common among pre-menopausal, menopausal women, the elderly, pregnant women causing osteoporosis or bone density loss and in children causing poor bone development,” he says.

The best sources of calcium include cow’s milk, fortified soy or almond milk, yoghurt, cheese, fortified cereals, and dark green vegetables such as kale and broccoli. 

Vitamin D is a fairly subtle and common deficiency causing issues related to depression, poor bone development in children. Urban dwellers who have demanding jobs that call for early morning and late evening schedules tend to suffer this as they do not get much sun and most likely, they do not eat or supplement this adequately. 

“Newborns who are not adequately exposed to the sun could also suffer this deficiency, causing severe jaundice. Children and the elderly who do not eat fortified foods might also suffer this deficiency,” says Twebaze. 

Signs of deficiency include fatigue, bone pain, mood changes, muscle aches, and weakness. Foods high in vitamin D include fortified cow’s milk and cereals, soy milk and mushrooms, among others.

Vitamin B12 is useful in the production of red blood cells and healthy nerve signaling. Unfortunately, Baguma remarks that as we age, the body’s ability to absorb it declines. Also, vegetarians and vegans are at a higher risk of this deficiency since plants do not contain the vitamin.

He says: “Signs of a B12 shortfall include fatigue from anaemia, numbness in hands, legs, and feet, or trouble with balance and walking as well as memory problems. Fish, chicken, milk, and yoghurt are great sources of this vitamin and vegans can try fortified non-dairy milk and cereals.”

Iodine deficiency is also a more common one among people living in hilly/mountainous areas where soil erosion and leaching deplete the cultivated soils of iodine, causing goitre and thyroid problems.

Dehydration is another form of nutrient deficiency involving lack of enough water. People who do not drink water, children who are not monitored and encouraged to take water, those who do not eat water-filled foods, especially fruits and vegetables such as watermelon and cucumbers, among others and those suffering severe illnesses where swallowing is a problem might suffer this the most. 

How to detect deficiency
Since most nutrition deficiencies happen over time, their signs and symptoms too might likely show when it is a more severe case of deficiency. It is, therefore, important to equip ourselves with nutrition knowledge about our body nutrient requirements and their recommended daily intake. 

Keenly observing and noting down any body changes would also help an individual know or consult if they might have signs/symptoms pointing to a nutrition deficiency. The symptoms may include hair loss, inability to concentrate, sudden weight loss or gain, low immunity, sight problems, slow wound healing as well as skin and gut problems, among others.

Calcium levels cannot be accurately measured from a blood test, but rather from a bone density scan. However, blood tests can reveal whether you lack key nutrients, including vitamin D, iron, or B12. 

Deficiencies are usually treated by eating a healthy diet, which has all the nutrients and not empty calories found in processed foods. A balanced diet containing a variety of foods will help you get the lacking nutrients. 

Supplementation is also another way to treat nutrient deficiencies although it is best to consult your nutritionist and doctor before taking this path. 

“Eating a highly varied diet can also be of some help when treating deficiencies as this allows you eat more diverse foods in varying quantities and qualities. Eating foods fortified with the lacking nutrients can also help treat the nutrient deficiency,” Twebaze says.

Who is prone?
Those who do not eat fruits and vegetables, stay indoors for a long time, eat highly processed foods, women of childbearing age, poor diets, stress, poverty, ignorance about how to eat well, stay in famine and drought hit as well as war-torn areas.