A brief history of 7 nutrient deficient disorders and how to avoid them 

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Signs & symptoms: Difficulty walking, paralysis of lower legs, loss of muscle function in legs, pain, unusual eye movements, mental confusions, vomiting. 

Afflicting a higher number of people in the developing world than the developed, beriberi is a nasty, chronic disease deriving from a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. 

Traceable across many parts of Asia such as China, Japan and Indonesia, beriberi can be divided into two forms; dry beriberi, affecting the nervous system, and wet beriberi, affecting the cardiovascular system. 

During the British occupation of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the late 1790s, army physician Thomas Christie outlined beriberi as a “disease of disability”, proposing preventative measures in the form of “dry lodging, warm clothing, and a good, nutritious diet.” 

Turns out Christie wasn’t far wrong. Although it can in rare cases be inherited, beriberi is mostly avoided by consuming a nutritious and balanced diet containing thiamine. 

However, whilst available to the majority of people nowadays via B1-enriched foods, there are many living in developing countries to whom this nutrition still remains inaccessible. According to one study, thiamine insufficiency is endemic among several South East Asian nations, accounting for 45 percent of under-5 deaths in Cambodia alone. 

So where can you find this life-sustaining nutrient aside from fortified foods?

Look no further than sunflower seeds, green beans, green peas, lentils, pork, fish, and yoghurt, all of which contain thiamine (B1). 

Hey Fresto! meals including ingredients with thiamine: 



Signs & symptoms: Coughing, a tight feeling in the throat, a hoarse voice, difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing. 

Distinguished as diffuse goitre and nodular goitre, this condition manifests as a swelling of the thyroid gland or development of solid or fluid-filled lumps called nodules within the thyroid. 

Occurring for one of many factors, goitre commonly grows due to an individual’s iodine deficiency. Around 90 percent of goitres worldwide are caused by this. 

Establishing the link between minerals and goitre in the 16th century, German-Swiss physicist and alchemist Paracelsus discovered the disease had a particular link to lead. However, it wasn’t until 1852 that a hypothesis connecting iodine deficiency with goitre was understood by a French chemist named Adolphe Chatin. An element you may have only heard of to disinfect water maybe, but iodine is essential for brain development and cognitive function in children, as well as to avoid such an unpleasant condition. 

Generally speaking, fish, liver, eggs, chicken, seaweed, shellfish, and dairy products are great sources of iodine, but if you follow a vegan diet, vitamin supplements are an ideal alternative. 

Megaloblastic anaemia

Signs & symptoms: Shortness of breath, muscle weakness, loss of appetite, weight loss, diarrhoea, nausea and increased heart rate. 

A symptom of vitamin B9 deficiency or folate deficiency, megaloblastic anaemia is a catch-all term for a group of anaemias which produce larger-than-normal red blood cells. These are called megaloblasts and are located in the bone marrow. 

Originally characterised as anaemia, languor, and general debility in 1849 by the physician Thomas Addison, megaloblastic anaemia was eventually proven to have a connection to a poor diet via a daring 1961 experiment. 

Using himself as the study’s subject, American haematologist Victor Herbert subjected himself to a diet of thrice-boiled vegetables over five months. After controlling his low potassium levels which left him struggling to walk, Herbert developed fatigue, diarrhoea, and headaches – symptoms of megaloblastic anaemia. 

Central to the avoidance of this condition, folic acid or folate has only recently been recognised. Crystallised and chemically identified between 1943 and 1945, folate has gone through quite the identity transformation from factor found in yeast and liver, to stand-alone supplement. 

The water-soluble, natural form of vitamin B9, folate can be found in many foods such as: Dark green leafy vegetables, fresh fruits, beans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, whole grains, liver, seafood, eggs, and fortified foods. 

Nyctalopia | Night blindness 

Signs & symptoms: Excessive squinting at night, blurry vision in the dark, vomiting, nausea, abnormal trouble driving at night, severe difficulty seeing in dim light.  

Registering approximately 80 percent of all our sensory impressions, human eyesight is a vital aid to everyday survival. Enabling us to evade danger, our eyes are useful tools which depend on specific nutrients to function effectively. 

Vitamin A is arguably the most important of these components and is used by the body to produce a crucial pigment called rhodopsin. 

Initiating scotopic vision, or in non-scientific terminology, low-light vision, rhodopsin relies on vitamin A consumption to avoid night blindness; without vitamin A, rhodopsin levels drop, and rod cells in the eye become impaired. 

Nyctalopia, aka night blindness, is no new condition. Known about since the Egyptian era and recognised by Hippocrates (460–325 BC) who proposed liver as cure, nyctalopia inhibits the sufferer’s ability to see in dark or low light. 

Despite knowledge of night blindness stemming back through millenia, the characterisation of its remedy vitamin A took a mere 130 years in comparison. Given its name in 1920, vitamin A was finally extracted from cod-liver oil in 1937 by nobel-prize winning chemist Paul Karrer. 

Thankfully though we don’t need to stomach cod-liver oil in order to get our daily vitamin A hit. 

Nowadays, there are a variety of vitamin-rich foods which contain this nutrient including sweet potato, carrots, eggs, milk, yoghurt, and oily fish. 


Signs & symptoms: Broken wrist, broken hip, broken vertebrae, curved spine, loss of height, severe back pain. 

A cruel condition creating a spongy porous structure within the bones that weakens them, osteoporosis is an affliction which can be dated back to the Egyptian era. One study conducted by Zaki et al. discovered symptoms of osteoporosis amongst the skeletons of 74 Egyptians from cemeteries in Giza.  

Interestingly, the bone condition was more prevalent in male workers than high officials, a fact the article attributes “to social status and the poorer nutritional status of male workers than high officials.”

Official recognition of osteoporosis was not realised until much later though in the 1830s. 

Noticing the larger-than-average holes in some of his patients’ bones, the French pathologist Jean Lobstein coined the term osteoporosis to describe such deteriorated human bone; osteo- derives from osteon, the Greek word for bone, pore refers to a minute opening or orifice and -osis denotes a state of disease in Latin. 

By 1941, a connection had been made between osteoporosis and calcium absorption, concluded by American endocrinologist Fuller Albright who stopped the vertebral fractures in post-menopausal women with oestrogen treatment. The oestrogen supplements restored the womens’ calcium balance which strengthened their vertebral bones. 

Crucial to the reinforcement of bones and teeth, calcium was first isolated by English chemist Humphry Davy who distilled it from mercury after combining lime and mercury oxide. 

Enough of the sciencey stuff though, the following foods are where to find your daily dose of this vital vitamin: milk and other dairy products, tofu, soya beans, nuts, small, bony fish and dark green leafy vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and okra. 


Signs & symptoms: Painful bones, skeletal deformities, dental problems, poor growth and development.  

Whilst the first printed use of the term rickets appeared in the Annual Bill of Mortality in 1634, the condition had actually been known since Ancient Greece; the Greek physician Sorano of Ephesus is credited with the discovery of rickets between 110 – 130 AD. 

Officially named rickets by English physician Daniel Whistler in 1645, the nutrient-deficient disease is caused by a lack of vitamin D which is primarily obtained through sun exposure. 

This has been demonstrated in one study which found evidence of rickets in the skeletons of 2,787 people who lived across the Roman Empire. Researchers found more than one in 20 children had suffered from the disease which they put down to colder climates in the north and child care practices of parents who kept their children inside, away from the sunlight. 

It wasn’t until the 1920s that a poor diet was identified as a risk factor for rickets by biochemist and nutritionist, Sir Edward Mellanby. Mimicking the daily food of many Scottish people at the time, a large proportion of whom suffered from rickets, Mellanby realised that the poor oatmeal he fed several dogs could be cured by cod-liver oil; he concluded rickets was diet related. 

Carrying on Mellanby’s work, it was actually American biochemist, Elmer McCollum who gave vitamin D its name and furthered our modern understanding of its importance.

To gain sufficient amounts of vitamin D, exposure to sunlight is your best bet. In the dark, Winter months though, the following foods are important sources to gobble up this essential nutrient: Egg yolks, red meat, oily fish, and liver. 


Signs & symptoms: Fatigue, severe joint and leg pain, swollen or bleeding gums, occasional tooth loss, red or blue spots on the skin, easily bruised skin. 

Popularised as a disease of sailors and pirates, scurvy is an acute manifestation of vitamin C deficiency which can, in extreme cases, be fatal. 

In 1769, a young British physician called William Stark died after he restricted his diet to bread and water for 31 days, only adding more starch and meat after this period. Subjecting himself to this experiment, it is likely Stark died due to scurvy as his diet lacked any fruit and vegetables. 

Symptoms of a diet lacking vitamin C can begin showing within a mere few months. Sailors aboard one Austro-Hungarian frigate which circumnavigated the world between 1857-9 showed signs of scurvy just four months into their voyage. 

Little did they know their symptoms would have disappeared very quickly with the right diet, a result royal naval surgeon James Lind discovered in his 1747 controlled clinical trials aboard the HMS Salisbury. 

Providing a sample of scurvy-ridden sailors with different remedies, Lind found the participants who ate citrus fruits had recovered enough after a week to nurse the other sailors. Between the 16th and 18th century, it is estimated two million sailors died of scurvy. 

So how was the vitamin cure to this dastardly disorder discovered? 

Scientifically known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C was identified first by the Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, in the 1930s. Unable to purify oranges and lemons due to their high sugar content, Szent-Györgyi chose to test paprika, later finding it to be packed with vitamin C he could purify and isolate. 

Among obvious citrus fruits like lemons, oranges and limes, vitamin C is present in sprouts, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and spinach among other foods.