The Standard American Diet, with its excess added sugars, saturated fat, and processed foods, is generally not the most well-rounded eating pattern. Data suggests adults and children in the United States eat far fewer fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products than recommended, and exceed the recommended intake of solid fat and added sugar.1 

While each of us has varying nutrient needs depending on gender, age, health status, activity, and a host of other factors, current data suggests despite these variables. Most Americans are not meeting their recommended nutrient intakes.

Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are broad food groups, each of which contains unique nutrients. For example, dairy products are known for their calcium and vitamin D content, whole grains are rich in B vitamins, and produce is a good source of vitamin C and other antioxidants. 

Nutrient deficiencies are likely to develop when recommended servings of these foods are not met and are replaced with less nutritious options. A single nutrient deficiency may not seem like a big deal, but not getting enough of an individual nutrient can significantly impact the body and even lead to other nutrient deficiencies and diseases. 

Most Common Nutrient Deficiencies

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vitamin B6 (also referred to as pyridoxine), vitamin D, and iron are the most common nutrient deficiencies in the United States.2 Keep in mind that these statistics represent clinical deficiencies—other shortfall nutrients likely exist in the Standard American Diet. Fiber and calcium are also frequently under-consumed in the typical Western dietary pattern. 

Although this news may sound grim, there are many ways to combat these deficiencies and inadequate intakes. Read on to learn more about these common deficiencies and how to improve your intake of these essential nutrients. 

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, is found in many foods—so you may be surprised to learn that it is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies. Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet is full of processed foods that either don’t naturally contain many vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients or have been stripped of them during processing. 

The following foods, many of which are not consumed in high amounts in the Western dietary pattern, are high in vitamin B6: 

  • Tuna
  • Salmon
  • Fortified cereal
  • Poultry
  • Chickpeas

B6 performs many functions in the body, including supporting normal nerve function, the production of hemoglobin, which aids your red blood cells in carrying oxygen throughout the body and creating antibodies that support your immune system. A vitamin B6 deficiency results in symptoms related to B6’s critical bodily functions, including peripheral neuropathy, skin inflammation, confusion, irritability, and depressive symptoms. 

Luckily, incorporating vitamin B6-rich foods into your regular diet doesn’t require much preparation or work. 

Packaged Tuna, Salmon, and Chicken

Packaged tuna and salmon are two quick and easy protein sources that contain B6. And, because they are packaged fully cooked, they require little to no prep on your end! Open the container and enjoy it on their own, over a salad, between slices of whole grain bread, or on high-fiber crackers for easy ways to enjoy nutrient-dense fish that provide valuable omega-3s and B6. 

Pre-cooked chicken is another easy option that can reduce your risk of a B6 deficiency and can be enjoyed in the same ways as tuna and salmon.

Fortified Cereals

The foods commonly used to produce cereal—corn, wheat, rice, and oats—aren’t naturally rich sources of B6, which is why the fortification of processed foods is so important. Fortification adds nutrients to processed food to make it a more nutritious and balanced food option. Enjoying fortified whole grain cereals is one way to improve your intake of fiber and B6, as well as other nutrients.  

Chickpeas

Chickpeas also referred to as garbanzo beans, are another excellent source of vitamin B6. Beans and lentils are packed with vital nutrients, yet they are under-consumed in the Western diet. They are an incredibly versatile food that can be enjoyed in savory dishes, seasoned and baked for a crunchy snack, and even used in baking. Eating chickpeas also increase your intake of fiber, protein, and iron. 

Vitamin D

When you think about vitamin D, bone health is likely one of the first things that come to mind. And while it is indeed critical for bone health, vitamin D plays many other important roles in the body. Research indicates vitamin D may be able to reduce cancer cell growth, reduce inflammation, and help manage infection.3 

Despite its broad list of functions, many Americans are deficient in vitamin D. Unfortunately, vitamin D is not naturally abundant in many foods, and is often added to common packaged foods, like dairy products, cereal, and even orange juice. 

Luckily, your body can produce plenty of vitamin D through exposure to UV rays from the sun. So, even if you don’t eat many foods containing vitamin D, you can create your own when your skin is exposed to the sun’s rays. 

In addition to foods fortified with vitamin D, there are several other food sources of this important nutrient:

Vitamin D Supplements

If none of these options appeal to you, supplements are an easy, concentrated way to boost your vitamin D intake. Cod liver oil is an excellent source of vitamin D and can be consumed on its own, added to homemade salad dressings, or blended into a smoothie. Vitamin D supplements are also available in capsules, gummies, tablets, and liquids that can be taken as needed without any preparation. 

Because vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient and is more likely to lead to toxicity than water-soluble nutrients, check with your physician or registered dietitian to determine the right dose for your body and needs. 

Iron

Iron is a mineral that plays major roles in blood health and is an essential component of hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen in red blood cells. Inadequate intake of iron over time can lead to a serious condition called anemia. Anemia can result from consuming too little iron, blood loss, or an inability to absorb iron properly. Iron is found in various animal and plant-based foods and can also be consumed via a supplement. 

Many people automatically equate iron to red meat. While red meat is an excellent source, many other foods contain iron. 

Beans

Beans are a great source of iron for those who prefer to limit their intake of animal meats. They are also rich in other essential nutrients, like fiber. Bean and lentil-based pastas are good options for increasing your iron intake if you aren’t a fan of beans in their natural form.  

Other Iron-containing Foods

Beyond red meat and beans, many other foods contain iron, including:

If you are concerned you aren’t getting enough iron from the foods you eat, consider taking a supplement. You can enhance your body’s absorption of iron by consuming foods rich in vitamin C with iron-containing foods. For example, top your lentil noodles with tomato sauce, squeeze lemon juice over your cooked spinach, or add berries to your cereal. 

Fiber

The good news is that so many foods are rich in fiber. From fruits and vegetables to whole grains and legumes, plenty of ways to get your 25 to 38g of recommended fiber per day. 

The bad news is that many processed foods so popular in the Standard American Diet are not a good source of this nutrient, which is likely why most Americans fall short of fiber. 

Fiber can increase satiety, aid digestive health, and even help lower cholesterol.4,5 When you don’t eat enough fiber, you may notice a change in your digestive regularity and feel more constipated

Many fiber-rich foods are also excellent sources of other nutrients. Some of the best sources of fiber include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Beans and bean-based pasta
  • Dried fruit
  • Whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers
  • Oatmeal
  • Nuts and see

If you don’t eat fiber-containing foods regularly, consider adding a fiber supplement to your daily routine. You could add a powdered supplement to your favorite smoothie, oatmeal, yogurt, a glass of water, or take a gummy or capsule to increase your fiber intake. 

Calcium

Another nutrient associated with bone health, calcium is a mineral often found in many of the same foods as vitamin D. And like vitamin D, calcium serves many purposes outside of bone health. 

Calcium is essential for muscle contraction, blood clotting, and nerve function. Prolonged calcium deficiency can lead to dysfunction in any of these areas, decrease bone strength, and increase the risk of osteoporosis.6 

Vitamin D and calcium work hand in hand. Vitamin D must be present to absorb calcium properly, which is why you often see these two nutrients together in food and supplements. 

Calcium can be found in the following foods:

  • Dairy foods, like milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Fortified foods, including some juices and soy milk
  • Fish with edible bones, like sardines

You can also increase your calcium intake with a calcium supplement. Don’t be surprised to see vitamin D and magnesium in many calcium supplement options. Because these nutrients depend on each other for proper absorption, they are often combined in supplements. 

Takeaway

The Standard American Diet leaves much to be desired when fulfilling our nutrient needs. While vitamin B6vitamin D, and iron are the most common nutrient deficiencies, the Western dietary pattern often falls short on fiber and calcium.

Luckily, it’s easy to ensure you are meeting your needs and avoiding deficiencies by incorporating foods rich in these nutrients and taking supplements to fill any gaps. Always consult your registered dietitian or physician when changing your supplement regimen. 

References:

  1. Cancer Institute N. Usual Dietary Intakes, U.S. Population, 2007-10 [PDF]. Published online 2007. Accessed August 27, 2022. https://epi.grants.cancer.gov/diet/usualintakes.
  2. for Disease Control C, Center for Environmental Health N, of Laboratory Sciences D. CDC’s Second Nutrition Report: A comprehensive biochemical assessment of the nutrition status of the U.S. population Report measures 58 indicators of diet and nutrition CDC’s Second National Report on Biochemical Indicators of Diet and Nutrition in the U New report uses NHANES results New information on nutrition deficiencies. Accessed August 27, 2022. http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/everyone/basics/vitamins/index.html
  3. Vitamin D | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Accessed August 31, 2022. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-d/
  4. Rebello CJ, O’Neil CE, Greenway FL. Dietary fiber and satiety: the effects of oats on satiety. Nutr Rev. 2016;74(2):131. doi:10.1093/NUTRIT/NUV063
  5. Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet - Mayo Clinic. Accessed August 31, 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-2004398
  6. Calcium - Health Professional Fact Sheet. Accessed August 31, 2022. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/