Which Minerals We May Be Missing and Why It Matters
When we hear the word mineral we usually think of our high school earth science class or that annoying buildup on our showerhead. While minerals may originate in the earth and can be found in our water, they’re also what’s known as an essential micronutrient—meaning that minerals, like vitamins, are required for human growth and development. Our bodies can’t produce vitamins or minerals on their own and need micronutrients to perform everyday functions. Minerals must come from our diets, and too many of us aren’t meeting our body’s needs.
That said, there is no one size (or dose) that fits all when it comes to minerals. Our needs can vary depending on our sex, age, stage of life, and nutritional choices. No matter who we are, minerals are essential to life. But according to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, many of us aren’t getting the minerals we need.1 So let’s dive in to see what we might be lacking and what we can do about it.
The Major Role of Minerals
While vitamins and minerals are both classified as micronutrients, they have very different physical properties. Vitamins are made by living things (plants and animals), whereas minerals are found in the earth (soil and rocks). Vitamins are organic substances that can be broken down by heat, air, or acid. Minerals, on the other hand, are inorganic substances that retain their chemical structure. This is important because minerals have to pass through soil then through plants, animals, and eventually onto us. Minerals can be found in water as well, though this depends greatly on where we live.2
As nutrients, minerals play a variety of important roles in the body. They’re involved in the formation and maintenance of bones and teeth, are used in the makeup of bodily fluids and tissues, and help with normal nerve function. There are two distinct types of minerals: major (macrominerals) and trace (microminerals), but both are equally essential to your health.
The Many Macrominerals We Need
We should be able to consume all of our minerals from our food, but the data shows we’re not filling our plates with the right meals. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) found that the minerals magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron (for certain ages and genders) were all underconsumed. They even went so far as to declare both calcium and potassium as “nutrients of public health concern” due to the health concerns associated with low intake.1
With data like that, it’s likely that some of us are missing out on a few of these essential nutrients as well. So let’s get familiar with some of the key macrominerals to see where our diets may need a little extra support.
Calcium in the body
Most of us know that calcium helps build and support strong bones and teeth, but as the most abundant mineral in the body, it’s also essential for a number of other vital functions. Calcium helps muscles function, vessels to dilate and contract, and is important in nerve transmission. When teamed up with vitamin D and a well-balanced diet, calcium may also reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Calcium in your diet
Finding nutritious foods with calcium isn’t hard. Dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, and milk are common go-to sources. If you aren’t into dairy, there are many plant sources rich in calcium such as broccoli, kale, kidney beans, and tofu.
Calcium as a common nutrient gap
Due to the long-term consquences of calcium on bone health, the United States Department of Agriculture declared calcium as a “nutrient of public health concern” in the 2015–2020 DGA. The groups with the greatest gaps include children (up to 50% of whom suffer from a shortfall already), women over 50, and both men and women over 70.1
A few key factors contribute to these shortfalls, including lactose intolerance, milk allergies, and diets restricting dairy intake such as vegetarian and vegan. A low vitamin D status may also contribute to this shortfall as it’s required for optimal calcium absorption.
Magnesium in the body
Supporting more than 300 reactions in the body, magnesium is a major multitasker and player in cellular energy. It’s needed to activate adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the main source of energy for the body. It is also needed for muscle contraction and relaxation, nerve function, and assists in the sleep/wake cycle. When it comes to bone health, calcium is the mineral that always comes to mind, but magnesium plays a key role in bone and teeth health as well.
Magnesium in your diet
Magnesium can be naturally found in whole grains and green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, legumes, nuts, and seeds. You can also find it in yogurt and milk, and to a lesser extent in fish and chicken. Magnesium is also found in dark chocolate and hard drinking water.
Magnesium as a common nutrient gap
Magnesium is a common nutrient shortfall across all ages and genders. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that nearly 45% of Americans do not meet the recommended daily intake for magnesium, which is why DGA highlights it as an umderconsumed nutrient.1,5
Those at risk of this shortfall include anyone who doesn’t eat foods rich in magnesium (such as whole grains and leafy vegetables). Other factors include chronic alcoholism, diabetes, GI conditions, multiple or chronic medications, and age. A magnesium shortfall is associated with many aspects of health. In fact, one recent study even found magnesium shortfalls in women who were suffering from inadequate sleep.6
Phosphorus in the body
Phosphorus is vital in every living organism and found in each and every one of our cells. It is responsible for helping body tissues to grow, maintain health, and repair themselves. It’s also vital in ATP, the molecule needed for energy production and storage.
Phosphorus in the diet
There are many good sources of phosphorus that are also high in protein such as meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, poultry, legumes, and nuts. Other sources that are not high in protein, but still have a good amount of phosphorus, are whole grains, dried fruits, carbonated beverages, and garlic cloves.
Phosphorus as a nutrient gap
Most Americans are not at risk of a phosphorus nutrient shortfall. Those who could could be vulnerable include early term infants, or people who suffer from a rare phosphorus metabolism disorder.
Potassium in the body
Potassium is needed for almost all functions in the body, including proper water and electrolyte balance, and the normal functioning of cells. Potassium is also crucial in nerve transmission, muscle contraction, as well as heart muscle function.
Potassium in your diet
Bananas are popular sources of potassium, but it can also be found in many other fruits such as dried apricots, prunes, raisins, and orange juice. It is also available in many veggies like acorn squash, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, and broccoli as well as lentils, kidney beans, soybeans, and nuts. Dairy, meats, and fish all contain potassium as well.
Potassium as a common nutrient gap
More than 97% of the U.S. population does not consume enough potassium.5 This is most likely due to diets lacking fruits and vegetables. The recent DGA identified potassium as underconsumed to the extent that it may lead to adverse health outcomes. As a result they have declared potassium a “nutrient of public health concern.”1
Those at a higher risk of a potassium shortfall include anyone with low intake of fruits and vegetables, or those suffering from inflammatory bowel diseases, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis who have higher potassium losses. Several medications, such as diuretics and laxatives, may lower dietary potassium status as well.
The Small But Mightly Microminerals
Microminerals (or trace) are required in smaller quantities than macrominerals, but are no less important to our health. Our life stages and dietary choices can affect how much we need or whether we’re getting adequate amounts. But trace minerals are just as essential to healthy living as vitamins and macrominerals. Let’s get up close and personal with these little inorganic substances to better understand what makes them so powerful.
Chromium in the body
Chromium helps support healthy blood sugar, in that it’s necessary for carbohydrate metabolism and utilization. Chromium appears to work with insulin to help regulate blood sugar levels, but more research is needed to determine the full range of its roles in the body.
Chromium in your diet
Chromium is found in many foods in small quantities. Sources of chromium include meat and whole grain products, as well as some fruits, vegetables, and spices.
Chromium as a nutrient gap
For the general population, chromium isn’t a documented shortfall nutrient. Certain populations may have increased needs, such as those with diabetes, but more research is needed in this area.
Copper in the body
Copper helps carry out many important functions such as helping to make energy as well as to make and maintain connective tissues. Copper is also really important for iron metabolism and gene regulation. It’s involved in immune and nervous system functions as well, and helps to make the powerful antioxidant enzymes already naturally produced by our bodies.
Copper in your diet
Copper can be found in legumes, cashews, sunflower and sesame seeds, whole-grains, oysters, chocolate, mushrooms, avocados, chickpeas, and tofu. Copper can also be found in drinking water.
Copper as a nutrient gap
Few people are at risk of a copper nutrient shortfall.5
Fluoride in the body
When we hear the term “fluoride” many of us automatically think about our teeth, and there’s a reason for that. Fluoride is involved in the formation of bones and teeth, so in small amounts, fluoride can help prevent tooth decay.
Fluoride in your diet
Sure, fluoride is in our toothpaste, but it also added to or naturally occurs in drinking water. Fluoride is also present in teas and canned fish.
Fluoride as a nutrient gap
Thankfully, the data shows that few people are at risk of a fluoride nutrient gap.
Iodine in the body
Iodine is found in thyroid hormones, which are vital regulators of metabolic rate, and physical and mental development. It’s important in every life stage, but critical for the brain and nervous sytem in fetuses and infants. People began to develop goiters (an enlargement of the thyroid gland) as a result of iodine deficiencies. That’s why, in the 1920s, our table salts were fortified with iodine to help prevent deficiencies.
Iodine in your diet
Iodine is found in a variety of foods in the United States. Rich, reliable sources of iodine include seafoods like shellfish and seaweed, and grain products like breads and cereals. Milk, yogurt, and cheese are also sources of iodine. Fruits and vegetables often contain iodine, although how much of this mineral they provide often depends on the soil and fertilizer in which they were grown.
Iodine as a nutrient gap
Women of childbearing age are the most vulnerable to this nutrient gap, which is why many organizations have recently been encouraging companies to put iodine in their prenatal vitamins.13,14 Most Americans, however, are not at risk of an iodine shortfall.
Iron in the body
Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin (the part of the red blood cell that transfers oxygen to the tissues) and myoglobin (which carries oxygen to the muscles). Iron is an essential component of hundreds of proteins and enzymes necessary to support many bodily functions.
Iron in your diet
ietary iron actually comes in two forms: heme and nonheme. The richest sources of heme iron are lean meat and seafood. Nonheme sources include nuts, beans, vegetables, and fortified grains.
This is important not only because each form of iron is found in different quanities in various foods, but also because each form reacts differently with other foods in the body. For example, while both forms are found in meat, seafood, and poultry—plants and fortified foods only contain the nonheme form of iron. If you’ve ever heard that vitamin C helps with iron absorption, that’s only true for nonheme sources.
Iron as a common nutrient gap
Most people in the U.S. consume enough iron, though there are a few life stages in which we may require a little extra support. According to the 2015–2020 DGA survey, iron is a public health concern for young children, pregnant women, and women of childbearing age.1 Pregnancy increases iron needs due to expanding blood volumes, while women with heavy periods lose more iron and are more likely to develop iron-deficiency anemia.
Other people at risk include those with celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease, as these conditions may affect how the body absorbs iron.
Manganese in the body
Manganese is used as a cofactor for many enzymes in our bodies. It is needed to assist healthy bone development, make and break down glucose and amino acids, and antioxidant enzymes.
Manganese in your diet
Manganese can be found in mostly plant-based food sources, including a variety of legumes, shiitake mushrooms, whole-grains, green leafy vegetables, garlic, flax seeds, almonds, walnuts, and tea.
Manganese as a nutrient gap
Manganese deficiency is rare. However, certain factors such as phytate intake and high iron and calcium intake may inhibit manganese absorption.
Molybdenum in the body
Molybdenum is a trace mineral that assists in the metabolism of amino acids and nucleic acids (building blocks of DNA). It is also needed for function of the enzymes that help remove damaging substances from the body.
Molybdenum in your diet
Legumes like black-eyed peas and lima beans contain molybdenum as well as grain products, nuts, potatoes, bananas, and leafy green vegetables. It can also be found in dairy products, beef, chicken, and eggs.
Molybdenum as a nutrient gap
Deficiencies in molybdenum have only been recorded in humans in a few cases that have not been replicated.
Selenium in the body
Selenium is required for the metabolism of thyroid hormones. It also helps protect the body from free radical damage because it assists the powerful antioxidant enzymes naturally produced in our bodies.
Selenium in your diet
Selenium is found in many plant foods, but the content is dependent on how much is in the soil where the food is grown. Seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, breads, cereals, and other grain products contain selenium as well.
Selenium as a nutrient gap
Most Americans consume enough selenium.5 Those at risk include people living in parts of the country with low-selenium soil or those with chronic diseases such as dialysis-dependent kidney disease. People with HIV are also more likely to have low selenium status.
Zinc in the body
Zinc plays a central role for many functions in the body. It is a structural component of hundreds of crucial molecules, a catalyst for enzymes to carry out their functions, and is essential in maintaining the integrity of the immune system.
Zinc in your diet
Zinc is commonly found in red meat, poultry, oysters and other seafood, and fortified breakfast cereals. Beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy products have some zinc as well.
Zinc as a nutrient gap
In the U.S., about 8% of the population is lacking in this essential nutrient.5 Vegetarians or vegans may be at risk of a zinc shortfall as plant-based foods provide less zinc than animal-based foods. Other people at risk include those with GI conditions, who may have decreased zinc absorption and increased zinc loss. Alcohol intake may impact zinc absorption and loss as well.
We are all minerals in the making
Whether your minerals are macro or micro, these small essential nutrients can make a big difference to your health. Minerals can not be made by living organisms (like us), but they play a vital role in building and sustaining them. Many minerals are easily obtained in our diets, but some may take a little extra care and attention. After all, these micronutrients are here to support our entire body—talk about a precious metal.
This information is only for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” 2015. 8th ed.; U.S. Department of Agriculture. Accessed on: September 5, 2019. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines
- Oregon State University. “Minerals.” 2016. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 9, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals
- Oregon State University. “Calcium.” 2017. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 9, 2019.http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/calcium
- Oregon State University. “Magnesium.” 2019. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 9, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/magnesium
- Fulgoni VL, 3rd et al. Foods, fortificants, and supplements: Where do Americans get their nutrients? J Nutr. 2011; 141 (10): 1847-1854. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21865568
- Ikonte, C.J. et al. Micronutrient Inadequacy in Short Sleep: Analysis of the NHANES 2005–2016. Nutrients. 2019, 11; 2335. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31581561
- Oregon State University. “Phosphorus.” 2014. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 12, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/phosphorus
- Oregon State University. “Potassium.” 2019. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 9, 2019. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/potassium
- Oregon State University. “Chromium.” 2014. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 9, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/chromium
- Oregon State University. “Copper.” 2013. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 11, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/copper
- Oregon State University. “Fluoride.” 2014. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 11, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/fluoride
- Oregon State University. “Iodine.” 2015. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 11, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/iodine
- Becker, DV et al. Iodine supplementation for pregnancy and lactation-United States and Canada: recommendations of the American Thyroid Association. Thyroid. 2006 Oct; 16(10): 949-951. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17042677
- Council on Environmental Health, et al. Iodine deficiency, pollutant chemicals, and the thyroid: new information on an old problem. Pediatrics. 2014;133(6):1163-1166. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24864180
- Oregon State University. “Iron.” 2016. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 18, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/iron
- Oregon State University. “Manganese.” 2010. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 18, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/manganese
- Oregon State University. “Molybdenum.” 2013. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 18, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/molybdenum
- Oregon State University. “Selenium.” 2014. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 18, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/selenium
- Oregon State University. “Zinc.” 2019. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: October 18, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/zinc