Nutritional Deficiencies

Deficiencies of one or more nutrients essential for normal body function

  • More common in children
  • Alcohol dependence and extreme dieting are risk factors
  • Gender and genetics are not significant factors

Nutritional deficiencies occur when the body lacks essential elements that are obtained from food. In developing countries, such deficiencies are usually the result of poverty and insufficient food supplies. In the UK, nutritional deficiencies are due mainly to disorders that limit the body’s intake or absorption of nutrients or to self-imposed dietary restrictions. Deficiencies may be noticed when nutritional needs increase, such as in growth spurts in childhood.

What are the types?

There are two main types of nutritional deficiency: a general deficiency of calories and all nutrients; and deficiency of specific nutrients. A general deficiency may be the result of poor eating because of severe illness or surgery. It may also be due to extreme dieting or deliberate starvation, as occurs in the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. Some people may neglect their diet because of other psychological problems, such as alcohol dependence. A general deficiency of nutrients may also result from poor absorption of food in the small intestine (see Malabsorption). Symptoms of a general deficiency may include weight loss, muscle weakness, and tiredness.

Specific nutritional deficiencies may occur if people limit their diets because of certain beliefs. In some cases, mal-absorption causes deficiency of a specific nutrient. For example, the bowel disorder Crohn’s disease can affect the last section of the small intestine, through which vitamin B12 is absorbed. Specific nutritional deficiencies result in a variety of disorders. These include iron-deficiency anaemia and the bone disorders osteomalacia and rickets, which are caused by a lack of calcium or vitamin D.

What might be done?

If your doctor suspects that you have a nutritional deficiency, he or she will weigh you and make a full assessment of your diet, possibly in consultation with a dietician. You may also have blood tests to look for anaemia and to measure levels of specific nutrients. Investigations, such as contrast X-rays of the gastrointestinal tract, may be carried out to check for underlying disorders.

If the deficiency is severe, you will be admitted to hospital and given nutrients using a tube passed through the nose into the stomach or through a drip directly into the bloodstream.

If the deficiency is a result of a treatable physical problem, it should resolve with treatment. Changing your diet should resolve the problem if poor eating is the cause. Psychological problems will also require treatment. In some cases, such as Crohn’s disease, long-term vitamin and mineral supplements may be required.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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