Warning Signs of a Bad Diet - Quality for Life

Ellizabeth Somer, MA, RD 05/19/17

Don’t you wish a thorough diet check-up was as simple as an annual physical exam?  The appointment might start with the dietitian asking you to say “ah.” Peeking down your throat, she might say, “Hmmm, not eating enough broccoli I see,” or “Just what I thought, there is too many chips and not enough sweet potatoes down there.” Unfortunately, every attempt at an accurate appraisal of our nutritional status – take for example hair analysis – has proved more quackery than quality. How are you to know if you are eating right or wrong? (1-3)

Luckily, many signs of a careless diet are right in front of your nose. While you explain away subtle inconveniences like fatigue, dry skin or moodiness as “normal,” think again. These and the other classic bad-diet symptoms are red flags that your diet isn’t a good as you think. 

Hair and Scalp

The Signs: Dry, thin or lack-luster hair

What May Be Missing?

Folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, biotin, vitamin K, vitamin E, iron

What's Going On?

These nutrients help to support healthy blood supply that carries oxygen to the hair and scalp and removes waste products. Poor intake may lead to reduced or fragile red blood cells, which literally suffocates the hair and scalp. (4)

What Can You Do?

Include daily dark green leafy green vegetables for folic acid and vitamin K, nuts for vitamin E, and a small serving of extra-lean meat, fish or chicken for iron and B vitamins.


The Signs: Poor growth. Nails chip or are weak.

What May Be Missing? 
B vitamins, iron, and vitamins C and E

What's Going On?

Nail growth and proper circulation to the nail bed requires ample amounts of these nutrients. Deficiencies result in slowed nail growth or nails that are weak or spoon-shaped. (5-9)

What Can You Do?

Choose 100 percent whole grain breads and cereals, eat at least five servings of colorful fruits and vegetables daily, and include several servings daily of iron-rich foods, such as dark greens, legumes, or extra-lean meat or chicken.                                   


The Signs: Dull, pale, or dry skin

What May Be Missing? 

Vitamin A, folic acid and other B vitamins, iron, water

What's Going On?

These nutrients help maintain moist, vibrant skin. For example, the skin relies on the bloodstream to supply oxygen and nutrients and to remove waste products of cellular metabolism. An inadequate supply of one or more of these nutrients reduces the skin's nutrient supply, while allowing potentially toxic waste products to accumulate. B vitamins help with the skin’s collagen formation and repair and are building blocks for enzymes that maintain healthy skin. (4, 6, 10-14)

What Can You Do?

Choose 100 percent whole grains, eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, and include several servings of iron-rich foods daily. Drink tea and coffee between meals, since these beverages block iron absorption by up to 90 percent. (15) Drink 8 glasses of water daily.


The Signs: Age-related vision loss caused by wet macular degeneration

What May Be Missing?

Vitamins A, C, and E, lutein, zeaxanthin

What's Going On?

The lens of the eye filters ultraviolet light, a potent source of highly reactive compounds called free radicals. A diet rich in antioxidant nutrients may help to slow the progression of wet macular degeneration by counteracting the damaging effects of free radicals. (16-29) Lutein and zeaxanthin are present in the macula and serve as blue light filter. (30-33)

What Can You Do?

Eat at least three servings of vitamin C-rich foods daily, such as citrus fruits, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage; one or more cups daily of dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach or kale, for vitamin A, lutein, and zeaxanthin; and consider a daily supplement when intake falls below those amounts.


The Signs: Tired, lethargic

What May Be Missing?

B vitamins, iron, water 

What's Going On?

The B vitamins are essential for converting food into energy. A marginal deficiency of any of the B vitamins may lead to decreased energy, fatigue, weakness and sleep disruptions. Iron is the component of red blood cells that carries oxygen to all of the body's tissues. Inadequate intake of iron deprives the muscles, organs and brain of oxygen and may result in anemia, fatigue, weakness and poor concentration. (4)

What Can You Do?

Dietary quick pick-me-ups, such as coffee, cola, or sweets, aggravate fatigue. Instead, eat a healthy diet with several small meals and snacks, starting with breakfast, evenly distributed throughout the day. Drink six to eight glasses of water daily to avoid dehydration, which causes fatigue and weakness. Take a moderate-dose multi-vitamin to ensure optimal intake of all vitamins and minerals. 


1. Ham R: The signs and symptoms of poor nutritional status. Primary Care 1994;21:33-54.

2. Checking nutrition status with hair analysis: Still useless. Tufts University NutritionLetter 2001:March.

3. Hair labs unreliable. Environmental Nutrition 2001;March:3. 

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