Dark circles, flushed cheeks and cracked lips. While these symptoms can easily be ignored, they could be a sign you’re missing out. Nutrient deficiencies are linked to an increased risk of dementia, depression, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity and, even if you think you eat well, you could still be at risk.
“Nutrient deficiencies can be common, even if women are eating a nutrient-dense diet,” says registered nutrition consultant Jenna Hope. The good news? There are visual clues to spot.
“It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for deficiencies to show, so tuning in to your body can help you to identify when something is wrong,” says Jenna.
What’s your body telling you?
Here’s how to interpret what these different distress signals mean, and the easy tweaks you need to get the most from your diet.
Dry, cracked lips
This could indicate that you’re short of B vitamins. “Cracks around the corners of the lips and an inflamed tongue are classic signs,” says clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer.
Fix it: “B vitamins are water-soluble, so they’re easily excreted, especially when stressed,” says Suzie. Good sources include beans, lentils, wheatgerm and wholegrain cereals. But avoid, or at least limit, tea, coffee and alcohol, as they can affect the absorption of vitamins.
“While rare, this could be indicative of a lack of vitamin C,” says Jenna. “But always seek advice from a dentist.”
Fix it: Great food sources include citrus fruit, cherry juice, red peppers, blackcurrants, watercress, broccoli and tomatoes. Watch out, though – the amount of vitamin C tends to deplete in vegetables that aren’t as fresh, so choose frozen instead.
“This can be a sign of low iron status,” says Jenna. Your tongue and lower eyelids may also look pale. See your GP, who will arrange blood tests for you. “Heavy periods, particularly in the run-up to menopause, can also play a part,” says Dr Carrie Ruxton.
Fix it: Eat iron-rich foods, such as red meat. Vegetable sources include green leafy vegetables and dried fruits. Iron is absorbed better if you have orange juice at the same time
“While dark circles could be indicative of dehydration, it could also be a micronutrient deficiency, such as iron, and vitamins B12, E or K,” says Jenna.
Fix it: Switch to organic meat – one US study found that some organic buys contain higher levels of iron than their non-organic counterparts. The most common B deficiency is for B12, mostly seen in elderly people or vegans. Go for eggs, milk, cheese and fish (vegan sources include Marmite and fortified plant milk). Avocado is a great source of vitamin E, while kale and spinach contain vitamin K. Storing cut fruit and veg in an airtight container in the fridge helps to retain the vitamins.
Flaky scalp? “Dandruff may indicate that you’re low in the mineral selenium, and also vitamin B6,” says Suzie. “Selenium deficiency can also make you more prone to fungal infections generally, such as discoloured nails and thrush.”
Fix it: Snack on selenium-rich foods such as Brazil nuts (three a day) and sunflower seeds. Brown rice is a great source – sachet varieties are ready in minutes, and microwaving can help to preserve nutrients.
“Vitamin B12 can impact the health of the red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your tissues, while an iron deficiency means that the body does not produce enough essential protein for the hair cells,” explains Dr Shirin Lakhani.
Fix it: It may take anything from three to six months to notice an improvement, but eat 5–10 (80 g) portions of fruit and veg every day, have oily fish twice a week, and opt for avocados, nuts and seeds. Steaming vegetables instead of boiling can help to retain nutrients, especially B vitamins.
Flushed cheeks – and not just after exercise or drinking wine? “This symptom is commonly a sign of magnesium deficiency,” says Dr Lakhani.
Fix it: Boost your intake with dark chocolate and bananas. Women need 270 mg magnesium a day, which equals around 50 g pumpkin seeds.
You could be lacking omega-3 essential fatty acids. “These help to produce the skin’s natural oil barrier,” explains Dr Lakhani. “Your skin may be dry, inflamed, and prone to whiteheads and blackheads.”
Fix it: “Oily fish is the best way to get omega-3 into the diet,” says Jenna. “Go for salmon, mackerel, sardines, walnuts, seaweed and flaxseeds.”