Even if you eat mainly whole foods, your body may be sending these hints that it’s not getting everything it needs
Usually your body is a pro at sending out clear orders that tell you exactly what it needs. (Stomach growling like a feral cat? “Feed me now!” Can’t keep those eyes open? “Go to sleep!”) But when your diet has a nutritional gap, those messages can be less straightforward. “Your body may tell you when you’re low on certain nutrients, but people normally don’t realize it because they think the symptoms are from something else,” says Rachel Cuomo, R.D., founder of New Jersey-based Kiwi Nutrition Counseling.
Case in point: Would you ever guess that a swollen tongue can mean you need more folate, or that a never-ending scab is often a sign of zinc deficiency? Check out these unexpected signals that your diet might be missing something so you can adjust your eating and better your body. (And always consult your doctor to confirm the cause of any ailment.)
An unexplained case of the blues could mean that you’re falling short on vitamin B12, which helps keep your nervous system healthy. And while it’s pretty easy to get the recommended 2.4 daily micrograms (mcg) from animal-based foods like meat and eggs, a 2013 review concluded that vegetarians and vegans have a high deficiency risk. But with a little planning, plant-eaters can get their fill too. “B12 supplements as well as fortified foods like breakfast cereal, tofu, soymilk, and nutritional yeast are all good sources,” says Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet.
Hair loss can be a symptom of crazy stress, hormonal changes, and even (gross!) scalp infections. But it could also be the result of too little vitamin D, found one recent study of women aged 18 to 45. Experts recommend getting 600 IU per day—and while the body makes its own D when exposed to sunlight, even the mop-topped among us probably aren’t getting their fill. “I don’t know anyone who gets enough vitamin D from sunshine and diet alone,” says Elizabeth Somer, R.D., author of Eat Your Way to Sexy. “It would take six glasses of fortified milk per day to meet your requirement.” So talk to your doc—she’ll most likely recommend a supplement.
That pesky scab could mean you’re low on zinc, a trace element that helps with wound healing as well as immune function and your ability to smell and taste. (Wouldn’t want to lose that!) In fact, even though it doesn’t get as much attention as nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, a report published earlier this year concluded that zinc is one of the most important trace metals in the body. Vegetarians and those with gastrointestinal issues can have trouble reaching the 8 milligrams (mg) recommended daily, so be sure to load up on zinc-rich foods like oysters or beef or meatless sources like beans, fortified cereals, and cashews.
Nails that look strangely flat or concave are often a sign of iron deficiency. That can also cause you to feel fatigued, foggy-headed, and even short of breath, leaving you without much oomph to make it through your usual workout, Gans says. The good news? You can get the 18mg iron recommended per day from foods like white beans, beef, and fortified cereals, but popping a supplement can also get you back on track. In fact, a 2014 review of more than 20 studies found that daily iron supplementation boosts women’s oxygen consumption, a marker for improved exercise performance. But iron is one case where you must talk to your doctor first because too much can be dangerous.
Those killer migraines that zap your productivity and make you feel miserable could be your body’s way of telling you that it needs more magnesium, since having too little of the mineral can mess with blood vessel function in your brain. As if the pain alone weren’t bad enough, recent research suggests that migraines might also increase your risk for depression, so it’s a good idea to meet that 310mg of magnesium recommended daily. Find it in almonds, spinach, and black beans.
Difficulty seeing in the dark is one of the first signs your tank may be low on vitamin A, which plays an important role in maintaining vision as well as preventing dry eyes. It’s found in red and orange foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, and bell peppers, “but you have to consume vitamin A with some fat in order for your body to absorb it,” Cuomo says. One yummy complement to help you reach your daily 700mcg? Avocado, which can up your vitamin A absorption by more than six times, says a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition.
Weird but true: Too little folic acid—a B vitamin that helps your body build protein and red blood cells—can equal gross happenings your mouth, like a ballooning tongue or mouth ulcers. Even more surprising? Exposure to high amounts of the sun’s UV rays can actually deplete your folate levels, found one recent study. The fix—aside from slathering on the sunscreen, which you already do—is loading up on folate-rich leafy greens like kale or spinach to meet your 400mcg recommended daily amount.
Nope, your moisturizer hasn’t suddenly stopped working. More likely, you need more omega-3 fatty acids, which spur the growth of the cell membranes that help your skin hang onto water, says Somer. More importantly, getting enough omega-3 may also reduce your risk for skin cancer, according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Though there’s no consensus on the optimal daily amount for women, the American Heart Association recommends eating at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fatty fish like salmon, tuna, or mackerel per week to get your fill of omega 3s. Not a fan of fish? Opt for a supplement or foods fortified with algal DHA over flaxseed or walnuts since those omega 3s aren't as well-absorbed by the body, Somer says.