Iron, Folate, and Other Essential Vitamins You're Not Getting Enough of (and Really Should)

Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT on June 15, 2017Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRN

 

There’s a surprising number of symptoms you might not attribute to vitamin deficiencies. Feeling fatigued or cold all the time? It could be a result of your diet — or what you don’t eat. American women in particular tend be missing specific and yet extremely common vitamins. Good thing we know what they are and exactly what you should eat to prevent those deficiencies.

1. The deficiency problem: Iodine

iodine

Women ages 20 to 39 tend to have lower levels of urine iodine compared to women of all other ages. And we actually need about 150 to 150 micrograms (mcg) of iodine in our diets every day.

Without enough iodine, our bodies don’t make enough thyroid hormones to help control our metabolism, body temperature, and more. You might notice iodine in most prenatal vitamins. This is because iodine deficiency is especially dangerous for pregnant women and may cause intellectual disabilities in the fetus.

What are the symptoms of deficiency?

Insufficient iodine in the diet can cause a goiter (swelling of the thyroid that’s around the throat). It causes your thyroid to work overtime and enlarge as it tries to make up for low iodine levels. This is also known as hypothyroidism. Other symptoms associated with hypothyroidism include:

  • weight gain
  • fatigue
  • feeling cold all the time
  • thinning hair

Where to get iodine

While it’s common for food manufacturers to add iodine to salt, it’s not always included. Plus, as many women cut back on salt in their diets, they lose another potential source of iodine. But it’s a good thing not to rely on salt for your daily intake. Healthier sources of iodine include:

Source and servingAmount (micrograms)
1 cup of low-fat, plain yogurt 75 mcg
1 cup of reduced-fat milk 56 mcg
2 slices of white, enriched bread 45 mcg
1 large egg 24 mcg

Dairy products, seafood, eggs, and grain-containing foods are all good sources of iodine.

Keep reading: 14 Best vitamins for women »

2. The deficiency problem: Vitamin D

Vitamin D

We may feel like we get a lot of sun, but for some reason vitamin D is another common vitamin we tend to miss out on. This is probably because we don’t get as much sun as we think we do, but also because vitamin D doesn’t occur naturally in a lot of foods. We need this vitamin for many body processes, including maintaining a healthy immune system and bones. Women who are pregnant, about to become pregnant, or older really need this vitamin for their bone health.

According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, women up to 70 years old need 600 international units (IUs) of vitamin D a day. This number goes up to 800 IUs after you turn age 70. But you could need more, depending on what your doctor says after they check your blood levels.

What are the symptoms of deficiency?

Researchers have linked vitamin D deficiency with increased risk for:

Other symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include bone pain, muscle weakness, and fatigue.

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Where to get vitamin D

The most traditional way of getting vitamin D is spending 15 to 30 minutes a day in the sun. How long you want to stay in the sun depends on skin color, time of day, amount of air pollution, and time of year. Confusing, right? While vitamin D is known as the “sunshine” vitamin, you need to be careful about staying under those rays too long. Prolonged time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and burning.

That’s why you should always wear sunscreen, even though it may block the absorption of vitamin D. Keep an eye out for new sunscreens that may allow vitamin D to be absorbed through. They're still being tested but could be on the market soon.

It’s very common for food manufacturers to add vitamin D to breakfast cereal, breads, and more. You can find added vitamin D in:

Source and servingAmount (international units)
3 ounces of sockeye salmon, cooked 447 IUs
1 cup of fortified orange juice137 IUs, although the amount may vary
1 cup of fortified milk 115 to 124 IUs
1 large egg yolk 41 IUs

3. The deficiency problem: Calcium

Calcium

We get told we need calcium as children so often it might be surprising to hear that most of us are missing out on this vital mineral. Not only is it crucial to bone health, but as a woman gets older, she’s also more prone to getting osteoporosis (loss of bone density), too. Funnily enough, calcium works together with vitamin D, another vitamin we’re often lacking, to help build strong, healthy bones.

What are the symptoms of deficiency?

The problem with having a calcium deficiency is that you often won’t know until it’s too late. While women with low calcium levels are more at risk for bone breakages and osteoporosis, they often don’t find out until they’ve experienced a fracture or significant bone loss.

Where to get calcium

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, if you’re 50 and under you need 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day. If you’re 51 and older, you’ll need 1,200 mg of calcium a day. But this doesn’t mean to go crazy on calcium supplements. Try to stay within the daily recommendation as high levels of calcium supplementation have been associated with increased risks for kidney stones and heart disease.

Excellent sources of dietary calcium include:

Source and servingAmount (milligrams)
1 cup of plain, low-fat yogurt415 mg
1.5 ounces of cheddar cheese 307 mg
6 ounces of calcium-fortified orange juice 261 mg
1 cup of fresh, cooked kale94 mg

While most dietary calcium sources are dairy products, many leafy green vegetables also contain this mineral.

4. The deficiency problem: Iron

Iron

Women are especially vulnerable to iron deficiency because we menstruate and lose blood at least once a month. Our bodies still need to make up for that loss with more iron, which is why it’s so important we get enough iron in our daily diets. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to low iron. The amount of blood in their body increases to support a growing baby.

What are the symptoms of deficiency?

Iron deficiency can cause anemia, or low red blood cell count. This can cause many surprising symptoms that make it tough to get through the day, such as:

  • extreme fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • brittle nails
  • a sore, swollen tongue

Where to get iron

Women ages 19 to 50 need about 18 mg of iron a day — that’s 10 mg more than the recommendations for men the same age. Pregnant women need more iron (27 mg) while women older than 51 need less (8 mg). Here’s where we can get more iron:

Source and servingAmount (milligrams)
1 serving of fortified breakfast cereal18 mg
1 cup of canned white beans8 mg
1/2 cup of boiled and drained spinach3 mg
1/2 cup of canned kidney beans2 mg

What you eat can affect how your body absorbs iron, too. Eating iron-containing foods with vitamin C-containing foods (like orange juice and citrus fruits) enhances your body’s iron absorption. But eating iron-containing foods with sources of calcium (like dairy products) will decreases iron absorption.

5. The deficiency problem: Vitamin B-12

Vitamin B-12

There’s a lot of vitamin Bs out there. Of them all, vitamin B-12 often tops the list for “need more of.” This vitamin is important for making red blood cells, promoting healthy digestion, and promoting neurological function. With the rise in gluten-free and vegetarian diets, a lot of women aren’t getting enough vitamin B-12 anymore.

What are the symptoms of deficiency?

Vitamin B-12 deficiency can be especially common in older women, although women of any age can experience it. Symptoms include:

  • anemia
  • swollen tongue
  • difficulty thinking clearly
  • fatigue
  • muscle weakness
  • tingling and numbness in their hands, feet, or legs

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Where to get vitamin B-12

Women ages 14 and up need 2.4 mcg of vitamin B-12 a day. This number goes up slightly to 2.6 mcg a day if pregnant. Examples of foods that contain vitamin B-12 include:

Source and servingAmount (micrograms)
1 serving of fortified breakfast cereal6 mcg
3 ounces of cooked sockeye salmon4.8 mcg
1 cheeseburger, double patty and bun2.1 mcg
1 cup of low-fat milk1.2 mcg

Many animal products have vitamin B-12. This makes the vitamin deficiency also a concern for women who are vegetarians.

If you’re experiencing symptoms and not sure why, you may want to ask a doctor for a blood check-up. They’ll be able to determine if you have vitamin, nutrient, or mineral deficiencies.

6. The deficiency problem: Folate

Folate

Folate (also known as vitamin B-9 or folic acid) is another common deficiency for us. If you’re over 13 years old, you should be getting about 400 to 600 micrograms. This vitamin is essential for DNA production, the development of red blood cells, and preventing anemia. And to prevent anemia, you need it in conjunction with vitamin B-12 and iron, two other vitamins and minerals we tend to be deficient in.

If you’re looking to get pregnant, it’s especially important to maintain adequate folate levels the year before you conceive. Experts actually advise women planning to have a baby to start taking a prenatal vitamin to ensure their levels of folate are high enough before conception. The right levels of folate can help prevent neural tube defects in the baby, like spinal bifida.

What are the symptoms of deficiency?

It may not be obvious if you don’t get enough folate — the symptoms are often subtle. They include:

  • gray hair
  • fatigue
  • mouth sores
  • tongue swelling
  • growth problems

But a folate deficiency that causes anemia may have more obvious symptoms, like:

  • persistent fatigue
  • weakness
  • lethargy
  • pale skin
  • shortness of breath
  • irritability

How do you treat folate deficiency? »

Where to get folate

Source and servingAmount (micrograms)
1/2 cup of boiled spinach131 mcg
3 ounces of beef liver215 mcg
1/2 cup boiled black-eyed peas105 mcg
3/4 cup orange juice35 mcg

You can also get folate from other dark leafy green vegetables like asparagus, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, chick peas, and green peas.

Takeaway

While you should be getting the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you need through your diet, it’s possible to miss out on getting enough of what your body needs. A healthy diet is the first step, but if you’re still not getting the right vitamins and nutrients, talk to your doctor. They may recommend taking supplements or have recommendations on how to adjust your diet. Be sure to buy from sources that are reputable as the FDA doesn’t monitor production of supplements.

Keep reading: Next-level supplements all women should take »

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