Nutritional Deficiencies

Most children with chronic illness diagnoses or symptoms are known to have nutritional deficiencies. This does not mean that they are not eating or that they are starving, rather, it means that their bodies are either:

a) Not getting the proper nutrition they need due to types of foods they are eating, or

b) Their bodies are not able to extract nutrition, even when eating the healthiest of foods.

Why Is Nutrition Important?

Heather Tallman Ruhm, MD, Integrative Physician in Concord, New Hampshire has famously said “How do you make an eyeball out of a Cheez-It?” In other words, every function in your body depends upon the food and water that we provide our bodies on an ongoing basis.

Every function–from breathing, thinking, digesting, walking, and talking, to the repair of wounds, the growing of hair, the ability to fight off infectious diseases, and yes, the making of the cells that make up our eyeballs–all of these functions and many more depend upon what we eat and drink. If we do not provide our bodies with proper nutrition, our bodies begin to break down and you will see the signs of ill health.

We are used to seeing this happen in older people who have developed poor diet habits over the course of their lifetime or in people who are resource-poor and do not have access to proper food. What we are seeing now, however, is that young children with virtually unlimited resources (access to plenty of food) are showing the signs of nutritional deficiencies. How is this happening?

Nutritional Deficiencies, A Multifaceted Problem

History of the American Diet

Despite the long-standing impression that Americans are a well-nourished people, they are actually overfed but undernourished. While food has always been relatively plentiful in the United States (as compared to other nations), the American diet has never been truly nutritionally sound.

Even when the country was predominately agricultural, Americans still ate what would be considered a “constipating” diet of mainly meats and starches. Despite this fact, Americans historically did not suffer from chronic illnesses like Americans do today. What has changed?


Industrialization in the nineteenth century changed the way that Americans ate food. In the late nineteenth century, Americans (especially upper and middle class Americans) began to exchange home-preserved and home-grown foods for factory preserved and processed foods.

Home-preserved foods were often fermented, pickled, brined, and salted, which are processes that use “good” bacteria (the kind necessary for good gastrointestinal health) to preserve food, where as factory processed foods eliminate all microbes through heat processing or other modalities.

Furthermore, grain-refining technologies developed in the nineteenth century stripped grains of their nutritive value in order to produce lighter, whiter flours that were desirable for breads, cakes, cookies and other baked foods.

Essentially, Americans began to exchange foods that were digestively beneficial and full of nutrition (such as fermented vegetables and whole grains) for foods that were less-nutritive and potentially damaging to the gastrointestinal system. Typically, it was upper and middle class Americans that had access to these types of processed foods.

Interestingly, America’s very first chronic inflammatory illnesses (allergy and allergic-type diseases) suddenly appeared during the late nineteenth century, and mainly among upper and middle class Americans.

Diet changes, in conjunction with newly introduced industrial toxins, may have contributed to allergies in nineteenth century Americans. These changes in diet were accelerated further, during the twentieth century with modern advances in food processing and manufacturing.

Over the course of the last forty or fifty years, the food chemical and additive industry has grown exponentially. There are now thousands upon thousands of additives added to everyday foods, and most them have not been studied extensively in humans. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans eat mainly processed foods.

The American diet today is one that contributes to poor gastrointestinal health and the increased likelihood of developing gut dysbiosis and immune dysregulation. A diet that is high in sugars and simple carbohydrates, and low in fiber and lactofermented foods creates an environment in the gastrointestinal system that is ripe for the overgrowth of pathogenic microbes. Overgrowth of these microbes can lead to gut dysbiosis.

The average American consumes over 140 pounds of sugar annually, up from 10 pounds in 1821.

In addition, Americans are not getting the micronutrients (e.g., zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium, iodine, etc.) necessary for good gastrointestinal or general health, because most processed foods lack readily absorbable versions of these nutrients. Without these essential life-giving nutrients, the immune system will not function properly.

Unfortunately, children in this country are notoriously bad eaters, subsisting on a diet of macaroni and cheese, processed chicken nuggets, French fries, pizza, soda, candy, and other sweets. Their diet, in conjunction with other environmental factors, leaves them susceptible to the development of chronic illnesses.

In modern industrial societies, we have worked very hard to create an abundance of food to feed our populations.

Poor Soils

We have industrialized our foods systems and even subsidized our food production with government money in an effort to produce enough affordable food.

In this process however, we have utilized farming and food production techniques that have stripped the essential nutrients out of the soil, so that the foods we produce are no longer as nutrient dense as they were even half a century ago. Our soils are depleted and thus the food grown in these soils lacks the basic nutrition that our bodies require.

Additionally, as we process these foods to create cheap, easy, and convenient packaged foods with a long shelf life, we have stripped even more nutrition out of the food.

So many of the processed foods that we consume on a daily basis are not providing our bodies with enough of the vitamins and minerals that we need to stay healthy.

When you eat processed, conventionally-grown foods, your bodies are only getting a fraction of the nutrition that might be found in whole foods that are grown through a more biodynamic process.

“Kid Food”

Unfortunately, especially in America, we have developed a culture of “kid food” that is essentially lacking nutrition. Somewhere along the line, people began to believe that only “kid food” (the only foods that kids will eat?) is acceptable:  pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries and sweets. No child can be healthy on a diet of junk food, yet that is what we feed our children everyday. This lack of daily replenishment of essential nutrients can lead to nutritional deficiencies, and systemic health problems.

The Microbiome

What’s more, we have destroyed our very own nutrient-making-factories that live within each and every one of us. By altering our microbiomes (the diverse ecology of microorganisms in our guts) through excessive use of antibiotics and other medications, chlorinated water, and the consumption of genetically modified organisms, we have destroyed our ability to produce critical vitamins and nutrients that our bodies need.

The bacteria in our guts are a critical part of our nutritional team, as they produce many key nutritional vitamins or cofactors. For example, probiotic bacteria in our guts are known to produce important B vitamins, which are critical for energy production, and cellular function (especially brain, nerve and immune cell function) among other key biological processes.

So children who do not have good gut ecology, but are fed otherwise healthy food, may also be nutrient deficient, because they do not have enough of the microbial helpers necessary to extract nutrients from the diet. All too often, we see children today with nutritional deficiencies.

Common deficiencies include:

  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Carnitine
  • Essential fatty acids
  • Critical antioxidants that protect us from environmental toxins and inflammatory processes in the body

It is a great tragedy that one in five American households are food insecure, but even households that have access to an abundance of food still contain children whose bodies and brains are starving.

It is time to rethink, as a country, how we feed our children and ourselves. If we do not take nutrition seriously, we will continue to see the rates of chronic childhood disease escalate.

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