Getting your daily fill of vitamins and minerals is a fairly simple task in most cases. You get your calcium from dairy, lycopene from tomatoes, and a rainbow of nutrients from multi-colored vegetables. But research is finding food sometimes falls short, particularly with vitamin E.

Like some other vitamins with antioxidant properties, vitamin E protects cells from premature aging. It also defends lung cells and, at an early age, aids neurologic development. A new study, in fact, supports the theory that vitamin E is most crucial during the first 1,000 days of life, after which the brain may not be able to restore lost function.

“Many people believe that vitamin E deficiency never happens," said Maret Traber, lead author and professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University, in a statement. “That isn't true.”

Actually, it happens nearly all the time. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show vitamin E deficiency is a problem among 90 percent of men and 96 percent of women. Fewer than 10 percent of people get the recommended daily allowance of 12 milligrams. And it could be because we’re weeding it out of our food.

One of the things that happens when grain manufacturers refine whole grains is they pulverize the entire body of the grain, stripping away the healthy bran and germ and leaving only the crushed-up dust of the wheat, which can then be used as flour for breads and pastries.

But in that process, a lot is lost nutritionally. Most of the fiber is gone, along with the majority of vitamin B. Vitamin E also gets the ax — up to 90 percent of it — making the goal of incorporating it into a healthy diet more of a chore than a choice. To get adequate amounts of vitamin E each day, people are forced to consume foods that aren’t always so desirable, such as spinach, nuts, sunflower oil, and wheat germ.

For Traber, this deficiency is a problem from the get-go, and it happens “with an alarming frequency both in the United States and around the world,” she said. “But some of the results of inadequate intake are less obvious, such as its impact on things like nervous system and brain development, or general resistance to infection.”

In her recent review, Traber found vitamin E deficiency was linked to a number of complications occurring early on in life. Babies were more likely to suffer poor outcomes during birth (mothers included), contract infections, battle anemia, and suffer stunted growth. In children, overt deficiencies led to brain disorders, muscle impairment, and cardiomyopathy.

By contrast, developing fetuses whose mothers got adequate levels of vitamin E developed healthier nervous systems than those whose mothers were deficient, with improvements being made most noticeably in the eyes and brain. Likewise, 2-year-old children who got sufficient quantities of vitamin E showed improved cognitive control over kids who hadn’t. Senior citizens were able to slow brain loss when their vitamin E levels were in the acceptable range.

“It's important all of your life, but the most compelling evidence about vitamin E is about a 1,000-day window that begins at conception," Traber said, emphasizing the need for a supplement if dietary intake poses too great a challenge. The risks of not meeting the daily goal may be too great to ignore, she said. “It's not something you can make up for later.”

Source: Traber M, et al. Vitamin E Inadequacy in Humans: Causes and Consequences. Advances In Nutrition. 2014.