To find signs of a poor diet, look beyond your waistline.
Sure, weight gain — or lack of weight loss — indicates you need to rethink what you’re putting into your body. But evidence shows many other health problems have roots in poor dietary habits that lead to nutritional deficiencies.
Watch for the seven signs below, and pay attention over time. They typically don’t surface overnight.
1. Your hair is like straw
Your organs require adequate nutrition to function properly, and healthy hair follicles are no exception. Starvation diets that lead to severe protein-energy malnutrition can cause brittle hair — or worse, hair loss. Studies show diets that are low in protein, essential fatty acids, and nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc and iron are associated with hair loss, hair thinning and loss of pigmentation. Aim for lean sources of protein (think eggs and grilled salmon), plenty of fruits and vegetables, and seeds and nuts for healthy hair.
2. Your skin is aging prematurely
“Weight gain — or lack of weight loss — indicates you need to rethink what you’re putting into your body. But evidence shows many other health problems have roots in poor dietary habits.”
Aging is inevitable. But a growing body of research indicates a nutritious diet can promote skin health and delay outward signs of skin aging. A 2012 systematic review reported that a diet rich in vitamins A, C, D and E — in addition to key antioxidants and flavonoids — has beneficial effects on skin. To get the benefits, and a more youthful appearance, consume five or more servings a day of fruits and vegetables.
3. You have disastrous oral health
Inflamed or bleeding gums and cavities are both signs of a poor diet. Too much sugar is a culprit for cavities. If you find yourself at the dentist for fillings once too often, think about how many sugary drinks and foods you are consuming. In addition, swollen or bleeding gums often are associated with getting too little vitamin C in your diet. You can boost vitamin C with foods such as strawberries, tomatoes, leafy green vegetables and potatoes.
4. Your brain feels drained
Do you have trouble with your memory or with concentration? Struggling with fatigue? The brain depends on good nutrition to perform its best, so your diet may be to blame. An adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids is especially important; it plays a part in cognitive development at all stages of life. To get plenty of omega-3 in your diet, choose foods such as walnuts, flax seed, fish oil and wild salmon.
5. You have digestive discomfort
Both diarrhea and constipation can surface if you aren’t eating enough fiber. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans fall short of the recommendations for fiber intake—25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. If you are tired of digestive discomfort, try bumping up your fiber intake by eating more whole grains such as brown rice and oats, in addition to nuts, seeds, and fresh or frozen produce.
6. You don’t heal properly
For a scrape, cut or larger wound to quickly and sufficiently heal, it needs an adequate supply of nutrients. If you heal slowly, poor nutrition may be to blame. Poor diets affect the strength of new tissue, recovery time and how well your body fights off any infection that creeps into a wound. Studies have shown that sufficient intake of calories, protein and nutrients is essential for proper wound healing. Focus on maintaining a healthy, balanced diet. Your immune system will thank you.
7. You get sick easily
Poor nutritional habits can compromise your immune system and trigger illness and infection. If you are constantly under the weather, you could benefit from eating more nutrient-rich foods. Optimal nutrition can help reverse a compromised immune system. Choose foods high in vitamins A, C, and E, zinc, selenium, iron, and folic acid. Start by increasing your intake of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains—specifically citrus fruits, leafy greens, popcorn (skip the extra butter and salt) and brown rice.
Brigid Titgemeier, nutrition assistant at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, contributed to this article.