And the nutrient dense foods you probably aren’t eating enough of.
Speaking on the topic of a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Oregon State University’s Micronutrient Information Center reports the following:
“94.3% of the US population do not meet the daily requirement for vitamin D, 88.5% for vitamin E, 52.2% for magnesium, 44.1% for calcium, 43.0% for vitamin A, and 38.9% for vitamin C. For the nutrients in which a requirement has not been set, 100% of the population had intakes lower than the AI for potassium, 91.7% for choline, and 66.9% for vitamin K. The prevalence of inadequacies was low for all of the B vitamins and several minerals, including copper, iron, phosphorus, selenium, sodium, and zinc.”
Needless to say, high energy and low nutrient foods are a prevalent issue in the United States. 75 percent of people do not eat the recommended daily amount of fruits and 80 percent slack on vegetables. Largely, this is not their fault. We live in a country that prioritizes immediate gratification, cheap and overly processed ingredients, and fortified food quick fixes (that often involve an abundance of sugars and salt). 90 percent of adults surveyed consumed more sodium than the recommended intake, and 13 percent consumed enough added sugars to put them at risk for micronutrient inadequacies.
Being aware of what we’re eating is a great start in both fueling our bodies better, but also turning the tide in the direction of cheaper and more available whole foods using the power of our dollars. Buy the change you want to see in the world – this is capitalism at work. First things first, let’s talk about essential nutrients.
What are micronutrients?
If you’re someone who is into exercise and nutrition you may be familiar with the term. Gym enthusiasts are known for calculating their “macros” in order to optimize their training and diet. Macronutrients are your main fuel sources: carbs, fats, and proteins. They keep you going, help to build muscle or put on fat, and make up the majority of your calories. Micronutrients, on the other hand, are the vitamins and minerals that we need in much smaller amounts but are just as important. Many micronutrients can be found in food, but some – like Vitamin D – are very difficult for our bodies to utilize from food and are better coming from other sources such as a pill (or, in the case of Vitamin D, sunlight).
Micronutrients include water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, microminerals, and trace minerals. What is not included? Amino acids, fatty acids, macrominerals, and water – these are all considered macronutrients – meaning you need lots of them.
What is the difference between vitamins and minerals?
This one is simple, vitamins are organic and minerals are inorganic. That means vitamins are made by plants and animals; like how Vitamin D is synthesized in our skin through a reaction to ultraviolet light, or how carrots naturally produce the pigment beta-carotene. Minerals, on the other hand, come from the earth and organic creatures can absorb them second (or third) hand through drinking water or consuming other living material. Hm, sounds gross when I say it that way, but there’s no getting around it – you need both vitamins and minerals.
What vitamins and minerals do I need?
The short answer is, well, all of them. These guys are called essential for a reason. If you just want me to cut to it with a list that you can check off, don’t worry, I’m getting to that. But first let’s talk about vitamins and minerals that come in supplement form – this means any capsules, tablets, drops, or powders you may be taking in addition to your diet.
The world of supplements is a multi-billion dollar (largely unregulated) industry that capitalizes on people’s desire to get healthy while keeping their customers in the dark when it comes to the science, ingredients, and methods behind their products. The truth is, researchers have discovered that we do not need vitamins or minerals in supplement form if we are eating a balanced diet. In fact, taking too many supplements can be harmful to health in the long term. In this large scale longitudinal study researchers reported that nearly all vitamins and minerals given in supplement form were detrimental to women’s health in the long term – with the exception of calcium, which was beneficial. Note that there are also many variables at play, including age, gender, and personal circumstances. In the case of calcium, a supplement is beneficial for women, but can be harmful to men.
So what does this mean for your overflowing medicine cabinet? Honestly, you can start saving yourself a lot of money by paring down to the essential vitamins and minerals that will improve your health in supplement form, while focusing on filling up on the nutrient dense foods we’re about to cover.
What supplements are worth taking?
You knew it was coming, right? When looking at my glaring Vitamin D deficiency on lab results I once had a doctor shrug and say “everyone has that”. It’s true. For the most part we have turned into a society of disgruntled shut-ins who avoid contact with both people and the sun at all cost. And that was before COVID-19.
35 percent of US adults are D deficient. The best thing you can do for this one is to just go outside and bare your skin to the sun for about 10 to 15 minutes several times a week sans sunscreen. If you really hate this idea or maybe live in Alaska then you should take a vitamin with at least 600 IU, but you could go up to 2000 depending on how much you despise the outdoors.
What foods have Vitamin D?
Try to eat more fatty fish like salmon and trout, egg yolks, and fortified staples that hide your vitamins under the sweet veneer of your favorite packaged goods.
You’ve definitely heard this one before. Calcium is one of those minerals that we’re aware of from the time we are little kids. I remember calcium being advertised on milk cartons, cheese wrappers, yogurt – basically any dairy product meant for kids or old people. Calcium is a mineral that builds strong bones and teeth, the literal foundation of our bodies. We can’t make it, which means we have to get it from other sources, most often through the byproduct or meat of other animals. As we age we begin to lose bone density, meaning we are more susceptible to injury and less able to do the things we used to. So if you want to maintain that jump rope hobby into old age you’d better be getting enough calcium.
But wait a minute, don’t just rush out and buy a calcium supplement. That’s right, as usual, this is far more complicated than it should have to be. In order for our bodies to use calcium we need to also have enough vitamin D and vice versa. These two have a symbiotic relationship going on. It sort of makes sense when you look at it this way, in order for us to utilize a mineral that our bodies aren’t capable of producing, we need a middle man that our bodies can produce with the help of a little sunlight. Our bodies are like those houseplants we keep buying and can never quite figure out how to keep alive – mostly because we don’t ever bother learning what that plants actually needs to survive. Don’t be that houseplant … Or the person who buys the houseplant. I don’t really know where I was going with this metaphor, but you know what I mean. A little extra time and care will go a long way to keeping your body healthy.
For the best results make sure your supplement arsenal includes both calcium and vitamin d, or pair calcium rich foods with the vitamin D foods we talked about above. You could also drink a tall glass of milk outside on a sunny day, whatever floats your boat.
What foods have calcium?
You can get your calcium from dairy products, fortified foods, cooked leafy greens, poppy, sesame and chia seeds, salted or canned fish, lentils and legumes.
Magnesium is often referred to as the magic mineral. Okay, no, that’s just me. But it really does do a lot for your health! Magnesium aids in the quality of sleep, improves digestion, balances hormones, and soothes the nervous system. How does this work?
We have something called the HPA axis in our bodies – HPA stands for Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal. These three components exist to regulate our response to stress. During a stressful situation the hypothalamus releases CRH – Corticotropin Releasing Hormone – that then tells the pituitary gland to release ACTH – Adrenocorticotropic Hormone – into the blood stream, which makes it way to the adrenal glands who finally release a steroid hormone we’re all familiar with: Cortisol. When cortisol levels become elevated something called a negative feedback mechanism. When this system is working properly, the hypothalamus will shut off the stress response and cortisol levels will even out once the stressful situation has gone away. But here’s the problem:
In today’s fast moving world we push ourselves to move from stressful situation to stressful situation. We do this for multiple reasons, from societal pressure to unrealistic perfectionist tendencies. Sometimes stress just seems like a normal part of our lives and we stop recognizing it. Our natural response is not equipped to handle long-term stress, however, so we end up literally burnt out – the negative feedback mechanism is broken and eventually our adrenal glands run out of juice. Eventually we build a tolerance to cortisol, and if the stress continues for too long we experience adrenal exhaustion. As a neuroscience nerd I could continue this conversation in detail, but you’re here for vitamins and minerals so I’ll try to stay on topic.
Magnesium has the ability to interfere with the HPA loop, suppressing the release of ACTH and effectively putting a damper on the stress response. Ordinarily the body will excrete or dump magnesium in times of stress – this is a reaction to normal fight or flight situations. In these cases, dropping magnesium allows the body to ramp up the nervous system and get you out of danger as quickly as possible. But as we talked about before, this just isn’t the way stress works anymore, so your body will continue dumping magnesium over and over with no time to recover. That is exactly why you need to make sure you eat plenty of foods with magnesium or take a supplement or multivitamin with magnesium included. The best types of magnesium are magnesium citrate for digestion or magnesium glycinate for sleep and anxiety. Take your mag supplement along with vitamin D for best absorption and to avoid plaque build up, and don’t forget to make time for some de-stressing activities into your routine.
What foods have magnesium?
Incorporate lots of dark leafy greens into your diet such as kale, spinach, chard and okra. You should also eat plenty of nuts and seeds – especially flax seeds and Brazil nuts. Chinook salmon, pollock, mackerel and halibut are good fish choices, while a variety of plant based sources exist as well such as pumpkin, black eyed peas, edamame, avocado and even dark chocolate. Yes, this is your permission to call dark chocolate a vegetable, you’re welcome. Try dropping a piece of 70 percent cocoa into a hot glass of flax milk – it’s for your health.
Next time you want to boost your immunity, try adding a zinc supplement to your repertoire. You are probably getting enough vitamin C, another popular immune booster, from your diet if you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables but you probably don’t get nearly as much zinc. In combination, this dynamic duo has been shown to reduce the symptoms and duration of the common cold. Zinc is a powerhouse on it’s own as well; it regulates hormones, soothes the nervous system, boosts your metabolism, and reduces inflammation. If you struggle with rough periods or PCOS, it can also aid in PMS symptoms and blocking excess androgens.
What foods have zinc?
Zinc is best gotten through meat or seafood in your diet, so a supplement may be something to consider more seriously if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. Zinc-containing foods include oysters, red meat, dark meat chicken, crab, lobster, beans, dark chocolate and whole grains. Small amounts of zinc can be found in other foods like seeds and nuts, but plant based foods contain phylates, which inhibit the absorption of zinc. The ultimate source of zinc is by far oysters, but if you are kind of grossed out by that it may just be best to take a supplement.
This one comes with a few caveats. Vitamin B12 is a B vitamin, obviously, that contributes to heart and brain health, reduces risk of macular degeneration, and aids in the production of red blood cells. Research also suggests that B12 can affect mood, memory and symptoms of depression. Here are the caveats: it is largely agreed upon that B vitamins in general are well-supplied in a balanced diet and an excess of them can cause more harm than good. However, vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products, namely meat, which means if you are a vegetarian or vegan you may be in short supply. Plus, some research shows that most of us don’t even make enough stomach acid to break down the B12 containing meat and free it for use within our bodies. Again, B12 is found in many fortified foods, such as cereal or certain drinks (Good Karma Flax Milk is a great example), so if you get plenty of these types of foods you may be in the clear. Long story short, this supplement may or may not be for you, depending on your situation and diet.
What foods have B12?
Organ meats (mmm, appetizing), beef, tuna, trout, clams, dairy products, eggs, fortified foods (check your labels for the addition of B12).
Folic Acid (If you’re pregnant)
Folic Acid is the synthetic form of folate, a naturally occurring B vitamin that you get in many foods. Experts suggest that women take a folic acid supplement when they are planning a pregnancy up until the time that they are 12 weeks into a pregnancy. This supplement prevents birth defects, and there is some evidence that it increases sperm count in men, making it beneficial for improving fertility. However, long term excessive doses of this vitamin increase the rate of division in tumor cells and raise the risk of certain cancers. For most of us, we will get just the right amount of this B vitamin in the food we eat.
What foods have folic acid?
Because it is the synthetic form of folate, you will only see folic acid listed on fortified foods such as breakfast cereals. However, folate does the same job and is a powerful B vitamin that contributes to healthy cell division, DNA synthesis and methylation, and the metabolism of amino acids. That means this is a great vitamin for healing and building muscles. The highest amounts of folate are found in liver, dark leafy greens like spinach, Brussels sprouts, black eyed peas, white rice, and asparagus, as well as certain enriched foods. But folate is in so many more fruits and vegetables that are so good for your health, so remember to eat plenty of them! Just don’t overcook your delicious greens, folate is water soluble vitamin, which means it’s potency is reduced during the cooking process.
Honorable Mention: Iodine
In most cases you will not need to supplement with iodine. Iodine is an important mineral that we need to make thyroid hormones. If you are familiar with the thyroid you will know that its function plays a significant role in metabolism and energy regulation. People with hypothyroidism, or a low function thyroid gland, will benefit from either taking an iodine supplement or increasing the amount of iodine rich foods in their diet. If you watched Chernobyl you will have noticed that many characters were taking iodine pills – this is because our thyroid is eager to absorb iodine, but it can’t differentiate between stable (non-radioactive), and unstable (radioactive) forms. By consuming stable iodine, also known as potassium iodide or KI we can protect the thyroid from absorbing the radioactive form. You may or may not need potassium iodide as a supplement depending on your situation, but you can absolutely increase your intake through food.
What foods have iodine?
The easiest way to get enough iodine is to simply use iodized salt. Sometimes this can be harder than it seems because many salts you find in the grocery store no longer contain iodine – check your labels to be sure. I personally use Hain Pure Foods Iodized Sea Salt, which you can find on Amazon. Other foods that are a great source of iodine include seaweed and all types of seafood, dairy, eggs, prunes, and Lima beans.
What about all the other vitamins and minerals?
All the other vitamins and minerals you need can be gotten by eating some of the following nutrient dense foods.
Brazil Nuts: Selenium, copper, manganese, thiamine (B1), phosphorous, vitamin E, zinc, magnesium, boron
King (Chinook) or Sockeye Salmon: Astaxanthin (antioxidant), potassium, selenium, B12, vitamin D, B6
Cod: Iodine, B12, B3, phosphorous, selenium, choline, B5
Kale: Vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K1, B6, potassium, magnesium, calcium, copper, manganese
Seaweed: Iron, iodine, calcium, magnesium, manganese
Clams: Vitamin C, iodine, B12, zinc, vitamin D
Potatoes: The perfect food. Potatoes contain a little bit of every micronutrient you need to survive. And they’re delicious no matter what you do to them.
Berries: Anthocyanins, ellagic acid, and resveratrol (antioxidants), vitamin C, manganese, vitamin K1, copper, folate
Kiwis: One of the best fruits to eat for vitamin C. Also, potassium, vitamin K, vitamin E, folate, and antioxidants
Natural Peanut Butter: Vitamin E, boron, magnesium, potassium, B6, zinc
Liver: Basically all the B vitamins, vitamin A, copper, iron, zinc, phosphorous, selenium
Sardines, mackerel, and other small fatty fish: Calcium, vitamin D, B3, B2, B12, copper, and choline
Eggs (particularly the yolks): Choline, B12, B7, iodine, selenium, B2, lutein and zeaxanthin, B5
Dark Chocolate (over 70%): Zinc, magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, antioxidants
Avocados: B5, folate, vitamin K, copper, B2, potassium, B3, B6, vitamin C, magnesium, lutein and zeaxanthin, iron
Pumpkin and Pumpkin Seeds: Vitamins K, E, A, B, and C, potassium calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium
Watermelon: Glutathione and other antioxidants, vitamins A, C and B6, lycopene, potassium
Asparagus: Chromium, folate, vitamins A, C, E and K, potassium, phosphorous
Wild Rice: B6, folate, phosphorous, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese
Gluten Free Rolled Oats: Manganese, copper, iron, B1, selenium, phosphorous, zinc, magnesium
Black Beans: Calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, potassium, B1, B3, folate
This is just the beginning of a long, long list of nutrient dense foods that you can start incorporating into your diet to improve your health and ward off nutrient deficiencies.
Remember – just because something is good doesn’t necessarily mean you need it in supplement form. Take an audit of your diet and assess how many vitamin rich foods you are actually eating every day and in what amount. If you don’t suffer from the symptoms of a deficiency and you already eat a healthy diet a supplement may just cause an excess of vitamins – which is not what we want! Instead of focusing on getting enough vitamins and minerals, your goal should be to get enough of every food group each day. That means the majority of your daily calories should come from a balance of fruits, vegetables, proteins, fats, and whole grains. As long as you make an effort to incorporate those things every day and choose whole foods over processed and ready made products, you’ll be doing just fine.
I hope this helps you to understand a little more about what micronutrients we need, what supplements you should be taking, and what foods can help you live your healthiest life. What are your favorite nutrient dense foods?